“Buy American” hurts school-lunch program

Here’s a Christmas wish: that politicians and corporate agricultural interests quit nickel and diming school districts struggling to provide affordable meals for low-income children.

The grinches locally are U.S. Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, whose district includes 40 percent of California peach growers, and the Sacramento-based California Canning Peach Association. They’re straining to make two school districts look bad for saving taxpayers thousands of dollars on the cost of school lunches.

The basic story is simple: the Elk Grove and Sacramento City Unified school districts have bought perfectly good canned fruit from China because it’s cheaper than similar fruit from California suppliers. Garamendi wants the districts to pay higher prices to benefit his peach buddies. He invokes a vaguely worded “buy American” guideline in the National School Lunch Act and even suggests the districts are unpatriotic.

“I would expect the taxpayers of Elk Grove to be unhappy that their money wound up in China rather than the Sacramento region,” Garamendi said in a Sunday Sacramento Bee story.

In an earlier Bee story, Garamendi indulged in fear mongering by contending China does not take the same care for the environment, worker safety or product quality as the peach industry in California.

Is that so, Rep. Garamendi? And do you refrain from buying anything at Walmart, Target or any other major retailer that relies on international trade to keep prices low for consumers? Are you aware that imported foods are subject to FDA inspection at U.S. ports of entry and are expected to meet the same standards as food produced in the United States? That’s the word from Linda Harris, a food safety microbiologist at UC Davis.

As a taxpayer in the Sac City district, I’m impressed that administrators have saved $60,000 this year by buying canned peaches, pears and applesauce from China. Elk Grove administrators reported saving about $2,500 in recent months, according to the Bee. Furthermore, they seem to be acting in accordance with the “buy American” guideline, vague as it is, which allows districts to factor in price savings.

School districts nationally have increased the cost of lunches to meet higher nutrition standards, preparation costs and other factors, the Buffalo ( N.Y.) News reported. The result has been a decrease in the number of students participating. A Government Accountability Office study found 1.2 million fewer students across the country bought school lunches between the 2010-11 and 2012-13 school years.

After years of using federal school-lunch dollars to keep prices low, districts have been required since 2011-12 to steadily increase the price of a paid school lunch to close the gap between what the government pays for a student meal and what a child pays, the newspaper said.

Because of the heat generated by Garamendi, the peach growers and the Sacramento Bee’s puzzling focus on this issue, local school administrators are running scared. Sacramento City Unified spokesman Gabe Ross said last month the purchase was a “mistake” and that the district halted future deliveries of canned foods from China.

The Bee ought to be asking why a “buy American” provision has been included for years in the school lunch act and who benefits. Is it possible that members of Congress are eager to put the interests of big agriculture ahead of the welfare of poor schoolchildren? It sure looks that way.

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