In-Depth: Rep. John Garamendi (D-CA) reintroduced this bill from the 115th Congress to strengthen the National School Lunch Program's "Buy American" requirements and increase transparency so parents are informed when students are served foreign-produced foods paid for by taxpayers:
“Even in Northern Californian and Central Valley farming communities, some school districts use taxpayer dollars to buy imported foods. Some of those imported foods have been recalled due to safety concerns, when they could have been sourced locally in California. That’s why my American Food for American Schools Act would ensure that our schoolchildren are served nutritious, American-grown foods, produced under the strictest safety standards in the world.”
Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-CA), an original cosponsor of this bill in the current Congress and its lead sponsor in the 115th Congress, adds:
“Buying and using American-grown food products and improving nutrition for children in our schools should be an issue that both sides of the aisle can support. I’m happy to join with my colleague, Mr. Garamendi, to help ensure our children enjoy fresh, local produce instead of potentially less desirable alternatives from overseas. This bill holds school districts accountable for constantly requesting waivers to purchase foreign food products and helps ensure our tax dollars are used to buy healthy, high-quality, American-grown and made products for school lunches. It’s preferable to utilize food items that are produced right here in Northern California or in the USA.”
Last Congress, Rep. LaMalfa (R-CA) introduced this bill to bring more accountability to the "Buy American" provisions of the National School Lunch Act:
“Northern California produces some of the highest quality food in the world, unfortunately school districts too often look elsewhere to provide students with foreign food that is not held to the same standards of safety and quality. The Buy American provisions of the National School Lunch Act were created to provide students with foreign food that is not held to the same standards of safety and quality. The Buy American provisions of the National School Lunch Act were created to ensure our children enjoy fresh, local produce instead of potentially less healthy alternatives from overseas. This bill increases transparency for schools who request a waiver to use foreign products in school lunches and helps to ensure our tax dollars are used to buy American produce and to support American agriculture.”
Last Congress, Rep. Garamendi — then an original cosponsor of this bill — added:
“One of the best ways to make sure our kids have local produce is to enforce the existing Buy American provisions of the National School Lunch Act. These provisions are designed to ensure taxpayer dollars support U.S. jobs and businesses, and they have the added benefit of increasing the amount of American-grown food our children enjoy through the school lunch program. We have seen too many instances of school districts, including some in my district, importing foreign food unnecessarily without the proper disclosure. Recently, we’ve even seen recalls of imported foods owing to disease outbreaks when that same produce could have been sourced locally right here in California, subject to the highest food safety standards in the world.”
The California Canning Peach Association supports this bill. Its president and CEO, Rich Hudgins, says:
“When local school districts use taxpayer dollars to purchase and import food products that are readily available here, it is a real slap in the face to American farmers who are required to comply with a host of laws and regulations to ensure they are producing the safest supply of food in the world. Yet China is notorious for environmental, human rights and food safety violations so why are we using taxpayer dollars to buy their food products and risk the health and safety of our children?”
The National Farmers Union (NFU) supports this bill. Its Senior Vice President of Public Policy and Communications, Rob Larew, says:
“The school lunch laws were designed to ensure all school-age children have access to high quality, nutritious food products, like those grown and produced by U.S. farmers and ranchers. By improving transparency and enforcement of the Buy American provisions, through the American Food for American Schools Act, we can better support both American agriculture and child nutrition. When school food providers are using U.S. taxpayer money to purchase food, they should be buying American grown foods where possible. Providing USDA with greater authority to enforce farm-to-school lunch programs will help connect more students with fresh, local foods. These programs can also improve understanding of where our food comes from by strengthening local farmer relationships within the community. I urge Congress to support this legislation that will benefit agriculture, education and communities, alike.
In 2015, Michelle Drake, director of food and nutrition services for the Elk Grove Unified school district in Sacramento, California, defended her district's decision to buy 336 cases of diced peaches from China to serve students fruit parfait. The peaches cost the district $25.38 per case, and would've cost $7.63 more per case had the district bought California-grown cases. Drake said:
"When we get our bids ... we look at all the specifications. The (National School Lunch) Act states preference will be given to locally grown (foods) to the maximum extent possible. Price is something that we have to look at sometimes. On occasion, we have to make a choice. We do work very hard to give preference to local and domestic products. It is very important to us that our children get the freshest, best product.”
This bill has 17 bipartisan House cosponsors, including 12 Democrats and five Republicans, in the 116th Congress.
In the 115th Congress, the House version of this bill, sponsored by Rep. Doug LaMalfa (D-CA), had the support of 21 bipartisan cosponsors, including 12 Democrats and nine Republicans, and didn't receive a committee vote. A Senate version, sponsored by Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK) and one cosponsor, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), also failed to receive a committee vote.
A number of agricultural groups, including the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, California Canning Peach Association, the California Farm Bureau Federation, and the National Farmers Union (NFU) support this bill.
Of Note: Although the "Buy American" regulation already requires school districts to source all of their school food domestically, they're allowed to bypass this restriction if they can demonstrate to the USDA that imported food is "significantly" cheaper. Critics of this practice argue that because food safety standards abroad may not be as rigorous as within the U.S., districts' exploitation of this loophole could put American kids at risk of food-borne illnesses. They also point out that "significantly" in a cost context is too subjective as a standard for allowing school districts to bypass the "Buy American" requirement. Additionally, some critics claim that some districts are buying foreign products without seeking the USDA's approval.
In 2015, an investigation by the Sacramento Bee found that Sacramento schools were serving canned peaches, pears, and apple sauce from China. In fall 2016, Bella Vista Elementary school in Shasta County, California potentially exposed its students to Hepatitis A from frozen Egyptian strawberries that were voluntarily recalled by their manufacturer. The National Council of Farmer Cooperatives further notes that examinations of data by several industry groups have found that 50-60 percent of fish served in U.S. schools is caught on Russian ships and processed in China, 81 percent of apple juice served in schools in 2014 was imported, and that Chinese canned peaches are served to students in 26 states, including major domestic producer states such as California and Georgia.
Summary by Eric Revell(Photo Credit: Steve Debenport / iStock)