Biden Touts Buy American. But Guess Where Your Public School’s Fish Sticks Come From?

As President Biden touts Buy American rules and domestic supply chains in his State of the Union Address just last week, here’s an interesting sidebar on import penetration: your kid’s public school lunch is serving fish caught in Russia, prepped in China, and shipped as frozen fish sticks to the local school district.

That’s not all. California is loaded with peaches and canneries. But we substitute a portion of it with peaches from China.

The globalization theme has turned the U.S. into a dumping ground of every item one can think of, forcing U.S. farmers and businesses that aren’t Walmart or Facebook to compete with much lower wages, weak environmental laws, forced labor and currencies nobody wants to hold.

Between 50% and 60% of fish served in public schools are caught by Russian commercial fishing vessels and processed in nearby China, according to the At-Sea Processing, Food and Nutrition Service data presented through School Nutrition Association. Some 80% of apple juice served in public schools was made from apples sourced outside the U.S. Twenty-six states, including Georgia, have imported canned peaches from China for use in school cafeterias. Georgia is the peach state.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has distributed multiple guidance memos to the school’s food purchasing managers (SFA) on how to ensure they are complying with Buy American rules. But there has been an alarming increase of foreign product served in our schools, anyway – mostly fruits and fish.

American taxpayer dollars, via the school departments, should go towards local businesses. Is the U.S. in short supply of peaches? Does half of the fish served in schools really need to come from Russian commercial fishing fleets?

How does the public school food system work?

“The USDA does a lot of the bulk purchases for schools, like cheese, or oranges, and they then distribute it through their channels to schools nationwide,” explained Mary Nowak, director of government affairs with the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives (NCFC) in Washington DC.

“What also happens is you get federal money going to the schools and the schools can use that money to source food where they choose,” she said. “Many schools have a food service director that wears many hats and this person sources from a distributor and may not know where that distributor is getting their food from. Cost is a factor for schools and unfortunately, domestic producers cannot compete strictly on a cost-by-cost basis with a Chinese company with little to no labor, environmental, and food safety standards. This has contributed to the large influx of foreign-sourced products being served in schools. As long as the cost exemption remains, we essentially have no buy American requirement for school meals,” she said.

Public school lunches are part of the Buy American government procurement rules. But the government allows for an exemption to those rules based on price. Or if the product is not found in abundance in the United States, like bananas, for example.

“As it stands today, you have a better chance of eating Russian caught, Chinese packaged fish than an American one in an American public school,” Nowak said.

School lunch imports set off alarm bells inside the California peach industry.

The California Peach Association were first made aware of this way back in 2015 when an article in The Sacramento Bee said the largest school district in the area was getting Chinese imports despite peach canneries being in the same town.

The Association got in touch with Nowak’s group and they reached out to other sources to see if this was widespread. The NCFC was told by the Alaskan pollock fishing industry that Russian and Chinese commercial fishing operations were selling big time into the public school system.

This has been going on, non-stop, since at least 2015. The Alaskan fishing industry hopped on this subject in 2018.

Last week, President Biden said American supply chains need to be less reliant on foreign sources. “Instead of relying on foreign supply chains, let’s make it in America,” Biden said at his State of the Union Address on Tuesday.

When it comes to existing Buy American rules, Biden wants 60% of the value of items purchased under Buy American government procurement contracts to be sourced here, up from 55%. The percentage value will supposedly increase to 65% in 2024 and 75% by 2029, the White House said.

The USDA currently has a request from farm groups for more recent information about school cafeteria supply chains. Some of the more recent data is five years old.

One of the key changes needed in public school cafeteria sourcing is the removal of the cost differential language in Buy American rules. CPA has long seen this, and the Government Procurement Agreement for World Trade Organization members, of which Hong Kong is a part, as a way around the Buy American requirements for government purchases.

There is some appetite for these changes in Congress, and support from organized labor.

Congressman John Garamendi (D-CA) has known about the imported school lunch issue since 2015. His American Food for American Schools Act was reintroduced in the House in January 2021 and revised on February 25, 2022. The bill seeks to close that loophole.

The Garamendi bill would require a waiver to import based on “unreasonable cost” differentials. It eliminates that as a simple exemption for school lunch importers. Buyers will not need a waiver if they can’t buy a product in sufficient quantities from the U.S. (bananas, for example), but will need a waiver if they’re arguing over cost.

Labor unions that represent food processing workers in the school lunch supply chain are eager to see the Buy American program at USDA tightened up.  President James Hoffa of the Teamsters sent a letter to his Senator, Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Chair of the Agriculture Committee, asking that the “cost differential” exception get axed in the upcoming Child Nutrition Reauthorization.  That union, which is represented on the CPA Board, has been joined by the United Food and Commercial Workers, and the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco and Grain Millers, which combined represent a quarter-million workers who make and deliver lunch staples to school districts coast-to-coast.

There is little doubt that U.S. farms produce some of the world’s safest and highest quality food products. Those products are produced under strict regulations to ensure food safety, strict environmental rules, and with strong worker protections. All of this drives up the cost of domestic goods, no matter what the item may be.

Worth noting, fish processed in China often contains chemicals that are not allowed in domestic fish processing.

Finally, Garamendi and other supporters of the Act need to highlight this issue to Biden’s newly launched Made in America Council and push for it in the House to make it part of a larger legislative package.

All the groundwork has been laid. This is a non-controversial issue.

No one will be upset about reducing foreign food imports, especially where American farmers grow it themselves in sufficient quantity. And many times, like the case of California peaches, do so right down the road from schools.

If Buy American is to be more than rhetoric, then starting with the food American students consume daily is an easy start.

A Closer Look at Biden’s New “Buy American” Push


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