The Elk Grove Unified School District served students hundreds of cases of canned peaches from China in recent months, the second district in the Sacramento region to do so despite a federal guideline that asks U.S. schools to serve domestically grown foods.
Michelle Drake, director of food and nutrition services for Elk Grove Unified, said Wednesday that the district relies heavily on California grown fresh fruit and produce. She said the district purchased 336 cases of diced peaches from China to serve students fruit parfait.
The peaches cost the district $25.38 per case, Drake said. Each California-grown case, by comparison, would have cost $7.63 more.
“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,” Drake said. “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.”
The Buy American Provision of the School Lunch Program allows districts to exercise judgment when costs for the domestic foods are significantly higher than the imported.
But there is no measure of “significant,” said Rich Hudgins, chief executive officer of the California Canning Peach Association in Sacramento. “Today that is self-defined,” he said. “Significant is whatever you want significant to be.”
Last week’s disclosure by the Elk Grove district, the region’s largest with an estimated 63,000 students, came after The Sacramento Bee filed a Public Records Act request to a half-dozen districts in the Sacramento region about the sources of canned and fresh produce purchased for the current school year. The documents provided by five other districts showed no apparent purchases of foods from China that are also domestically available; officials from two of those districts said in a follow-up interview and email they do not import food from China.
The Bee filed the requests after the Sacramento City Unified School District last month acknowledged it bought 3,900 cases of canned peaches from China this year for about $110,000, a savings of nearly $43,000 over the California supply. It also bought canned pears and applesauce from China, saving another $17,000. The district has promoted its efforts as a leader in the regional farm-to-fork movement, which emphasizes use of local produce and meat.
District spokesman Gabe Ross said last month the purchase was a “mistake” and that the district halted future deliveries of canned foods from China.
There are no restrictions on purchasing foreign fruits when there are no domestic producers. Fresh pineapple is available and is grown in Hawaii, for example. And mandarin oranges are grown and available fresh in California. But there is no domestic canning industry that processes them, said Hudgins.
The Northern California vendor that supplied Elk Grove Unified said pricing plays a role in districts’ purchasing decisions.
Peaches from California can cost $10 to $15 more per case than the fruit from China, said Whick Smock, controller and purchasing supervisor for Danielsen Co. in Chico, which supplied the Chinese peaches to Elk Grove in August.
“Most schools are concerned with the cost of their goods,” Smock said. But, he said it’s “getting more and more common for schools to request only domestic products.”
Smock said he believes the drought has had an effect on the domestic industry. California peach prices jumped and both acreage and yield declined in 2014 due largely to the drought, according to the USDA.
But Hudgins said while peach prices rose, due in part to higher labor costs, yield rebounded in 2015 and was above average.
Hudgins’ California Canning Peach Association and Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, whose district includes 40 percent of California peach growers, have remained strongly critical of decisions to import peaches.
“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 Thursday. “The reality is that it’s really the school boards and what policies they want to lay down. It’s a question for the Elk Grove district’s board of directors. What is your policy? Are you willing to spend more to buy local or are you going to buy the cheapest you can find from some part of the world?”
He said about six weeks ago he talked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “and they were embarrassed and motivated to monitor (school districts) more closely.” The embarrassment, he said, was “because they’ve not been watching these contracts and they’ve not been holding school districts accountable. They are just very loose with enforcement.”
He said the The Bee’s story about Sacramento City Unified purchases from China “rang the alarm bells.”
Bobbie Singh-Allen, Elk Grove Unified’s school board president, said in an email that the district has adhered to Buy America requirements. She said the district supports “wellness for a healthy body, healthy mind and healthy learning,” and emphasizes California-grown foods. So far this academic year, the district has purchased 3,052 cases of fresh, locally grown peaches, nectarines, plums and pluots, Singh-Allen said.
In a Dec. 7 letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, nearly 50 agriculture organizations, including the American and California Farm Bureau federations, the California Canning Peach Association and the California Pear Growers, complained there is “no transparency regarding school purchases of imported products.”
State Sen. Cathleen Galgiani, D-Manteca, recently urged state schools chief Tom Torlakson to begin identifying school districts that import foods.
“I appreciate that Sacramento City Unified School District has halted future fruit purchases from China,” Galgiani wrote in a Dec. 1 letter. “However, I am concerned that other school districts may be purchasing imported agricultural products that are locally grown in California.”
Hudgins said he thinks a “chain of events has been set in motion.”
“We are going to make progress on this issue,” Hudgins said. “It’s a question of how quickly the wheels turn.”
Imported foods are subject to FDA inspection at U.S. ports of entry and are supposed to meet the same standards as food produced in the U.S., Linda Harris, a food safety microbiologist at UC Davis, said last month. Bob Bauer, president of the Association of Food Industries, the nation's largest representative of food importers, said in November that the FDA can halt imports if it detects a problem through a spot check.
Not all schools queried by The Bee tout formal policies emphasizing local produce purchases. Elk Grove Unified previously recited the National School Lunch Act provisions in its bid instructions but did not do so under the current year contract. Drake said the district has restored the language for future contracts.
Several districts touted long-standing practices of buying only local or domestic produce when possible. One frequent exception is bananas, which are not available domestically.
“It’s been really more of a practice by our food services department, which tries to serve the freshest, highest quality produce possible,” said Daniel Thigpen, spokesman for the Folsom Cordova Unified School District; he said he’s not aware of a formal policy that dictates buying fruits and vegetables that are locally grown.
Monique Stovall, director of nutrition services for the San Juan Unified School District, said she doesn’t know of any canned goods purchases from China.
“One thing important to us is consistency in a product,” Stovall said. “If we start out using a product and we find students like it, and it’s good quality, then we stick with it. I’ve not used products from China, so I’m not saying they’re poor quality. But when we find something that works, we stick with it.”
The Roseville City School District buys only USDA produce, said Food and Nutrition Services Director Rene Yamashiro in an email.
Dominic Machi, director of Student Nutrition Services at Davis Joint Unified School District, said the district buys no canned fruits from China. He recited a litany of California fresh food sources. Among them, strawberries from Watsonville, broccoli from the Salinas Valley and fruit from a growers’ cooperative in Lodi. He said school parcel taxes aid his department’s efforts to achieve student nutrition through local produce and scratch cooking.
Fresh vs. canned import from China
608 cases of peaches – California grown
2,444 cases of nectarines, plums and pluots – California grown
336 cases of canned peaches – imported from China
Elk Grove Unified School District