Public school cafeteria food is the latest battleground in the war against foreign intrusion into American commerce.
That word comes not from president Donald Trump, but instead via a new report from the California state auditor’s office, which says it has discovered that most public schools aren’t adequately policing the purchase of imported food, as required by federal law.
“Only two school districts of the six we reviewed — San Diego and San Francisco — included adequate language related to the Buy American requirement in all of the bid solicitations and contracts we reviewed,” says a newly-released audit of the California Education Department.
“This federal law,” explains state auditor Elaine Howle in a July 27 cover letter, “requires school food authorities purchasing food for the School Breakfast and National School Lunch programs to purchase, to the maximum extent practicable, domestic food — that which is produced in the United States or processed in the United States substantially using food produced in the United States. “
In addition to San Diego Unified, five school districts, including Elk Grove Unified, Fresno Unified, Los Angeles Unified, San Francisco Unified and Stockton Unified, were reviewed.
“We found all six of these districts had purchased foreign‑sourced food items without maintaining adequate documentation justifying their purchases,” according to the audit.
Some of the problem arises from federal food content disclosure laws, which need congressional attention, the report advises.
“Federal food labeling laws do not always mandate that the country of origin for food items or their ingredients be included on their labels; in fact, we found that 241 of the 375 food items we reviewed at the six school districts had labels that did not clearly identify country of origin for those items or their ingredients.”
Money, rather than safety, nutrition, or taste, appears to be the prime motivator for the crackdown on school food imported from Mexico and elsewhere, with auditors suggesting that the payoff could be especially big for the state’s giant farm lobby.
“California’s economy stands to gain from increased compliance with the Buy American requirement; accordingly, resolving the challenges created by these federal requirements is in the State’s best interest. California lawmakers could work with their counterparts in the California congressional delegation to petition Congress for changes that would add clarity about the origins of food products that school food authorities purchase.”
In San Diego, auditors say they found offending food items from around the globe, including mandarin oranges imported from China, Peruvian mango chunks, and tomatoes from Mexico, along with Thai pineapple tidbits.
“Of the six school districts we visited, only one had any written policies and procedures to ensure compliance with the Buy American requirement before our review began. Specifically, in November 2016, San Diego instituted a written procedure to include language related to the Buy American requirement in its bid solicitations and contracts for food products. However, this procedure was not comprehensive and did not, for example, address how staff at the school district should ensure that vendors complied with the contract terms.”
In a letter to the auditor’s office, Gary Petill, director of Food and Nutrition Services at San Diego Unified, promised to do better.
“The Food & Nutrition Services department takes great pride in its use of not only domestic products, but of the many local products sourced within the State of California and also San Diego County,” Petill wrote.
“There are currently only a few food products used within the District that are known to be import products and these items are products that we cannot source domestically or cannot obtain in sufficient quantities to meet our demand.
“The new procedures that are developed will result in department staff addressing possible exceptions to the Buy American requirement during the menu planning process.”