Education

Sacramento City Unified faces criticism for buying Chinese canned fruit

Jacob Anderson, 7, eats lunch at Oakridge Elementary School on Sept. 29, 2015. The Sacramento City Unified School District bought tens of thousands of dollars in canned peaches, pears and applesauce from China, defying a federal guideline that asks U.S. schools to serve domestic food and running counter to the district’s embrace of the local farm-to-fork movement.
Jacob Anderson, 7, eats lunch at Oakridge Elementary School on Sept. 29, 2015. The Sacramento City Unified School District bought tens of thousands of dollars in canned peaches, pears and applesauce from China, defying a federal guideline that asks U.S. schools to serve domestic food and running counter to the district’s embrace of the local farm-to-fork movement. apayne@sacbee.com

The Sacramento City Unified School District bought tens of thousands of dollars in canned peaches, pears and applesauce from China, defying a federal guideline that asks U.S. schools to serve domestic food and running counter to the district’s embrace of the local farm-to-fork movement.

The large purchase drew criticism this month from the California Canning Peach Association and Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, whose Northern California congressional district includes 40 percent of California’s peach growers.

It also caught the attention of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which said it will work with the district “to ensure that taxpayer dollars are being used to purchase American products” in accordance with the Buy American provision of the National School Lunch Act. The act requires school districts to buy domestically grown and processed foods unless such items are not available domestically or cost significantly more than foreign supplies.

“My district is the center of the peach country. When I found out about it, I was angry,” Garamendi said. “I jumped all over it. I said, ‘How can this be? How can the Sacramento school district do such a thing?’ 

He added that “Sacramento has had this very strong farm-to-fork program, and one of our biggest purchasers of produce is off buying Chinese peaches.”

Last week, Garamendi sent a two-page letter to the district’s nutrition services director questioning the foreign purchases with “four canned peach processing facilities within a two-hour drive of Sacramento.” He said China does not take the same care for the environment, worker safety or product quality as the peach industry in California.

Sacramento City Unified spokesman Gabe Ross said in an interview last week that the purchase was a “mistake” and that the district halted future deliveries of canned foods from China.

Ross said the district is confident in the safety of the canned fruit. But, he said, the purchase was “inconsistent with our priorities and our goal to buy local products in the Sacramento region and California. We’ve got a great track record in the region with locally sourced foods.”

Though the district will seek a new fruit contract, it plans to serve students the remainder of the Chinese fruit it has stored in its warehouse.

District records show that trustees authorized the contract with distributor Gold Star Foods of Ontario as a consent item at their Aug. 6 public meeting. As a consent item, there was no discussion or staff presentation.

Ross said the issue came to light in early November when nutrition staff at one school saw the fruit was from China. He said the district immediately looked at its options to stop future orders.

A letter from the peach association protesting the imported fruit came the same week. District board members were notified last week, Ross said.

Sacramento has had this very strong farm-to-fork program, and one of our biggest purchasers of produce is off buying Chinese peaches.

Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove

Ross noted that the district’s request to contractors specified that the fruits would be produced domestically. But by the end, the deal morphed into one for canned fruits from China. Gold Star Foods won a contract worth more than $300,000 to provide a range of fruits and one vegetable for the 2015-16 school year. Most of the cost was for the peaches, pears and applesauce.

Sean Leer, chief executive officer for Gold Star, said Wednesday that the Sacramento contract was the first time the distribution company had submitted a bid to import products from China that are available domestically. He said the district specifically chose imported fruit products.

The company’s bid outlined prices for each source, domestic and foreign. He said Gold Star sought to educate the district on the higher costs of locally grown produce.

“The lowest price usually wins the award,” said Leer, whose company describes itself as the nation’s leading nutritional food distributor to K-12 schools, with operations in California, Arizona and Nevada.

This time, Leer said, Gold Star won its first-ever Sacramento City Unified School District contract. In selecting Gold Star, the district specified that it wanted the less expensive peaches, pears and applesauce from China.

Ross said an individual in Sacramento City Unified’s purchasing department made the decision. He said administrators are looking to add checks and balances to purchasing decisions.

Leer said he was surprised. “We would have hoped that they bought the domestic product.”

According to prices in the Gold Star bid, the district agreed to pay $110,058 for 3,900 cases of diced peaches in extra light syrup for the school year. The California-grown product, in contrast, would have cost $152,763 for the same volume, about 39 percent more expensive.

The 500 cases of sliced Bartlett pears from China cost $13,000 compared to the $19,300 bid for the California product. And 2,700 cases of applesauce cost $52,191 from China instead of $62,856 from Washington state.

It was new ground for Gold Star, which is preparing to expand its operation to Dixon and UC Davis. The Sacramento experience aside, Leer said, “I will tell you emphatically, we’re a supporter of not only local sourcing but of California agriculture.”

Last week, the district said it had halted outstanding orders for the products from China. By then, the district had ordered 728 cases of canned peaches, 952 cases of pears and 896 cases of applesauce.

“It’s not a question of whether (the purchase) is legal,” Ross said. “It certainly was. We’re confident of the safety. We’re not in the business of ordering or distributing food where we have any concerns about safety. There have been no recalls.”

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., said Linda Harris, a food safety microbiologist at UC Davis.

Bob Bauer, president of the Association of Food Industries, the nation’s largest representative of food importers, said the FDA can halt imports if it detects a problem through a spot check.

Sacramento County Supervisor Patrick Kennedy said he viewed the purchasing decision as a mistake. But, he said, the district has made big strides since 2010 when it launched the health foods task force, of which he was the first chairman when he was a trustee.

Since then, he said, the district tripled its budget for fruits and vegetables, bringing fresh produce from within 150 miles for 43,000 students. Today, salad bars are in every campus. More schools have gardens. And the curriculum includes healthy foods education.

Rich Hudgins, chief executive officer of the California Canning Peach Association in Sacramento, said the Sacramento district may not have violated the Buy American law, but it violated the spirit. He said the federal government does not monitor purchases that supplement foods delivered directly from the USDA.

“It’s becoming the 55 mph speed limit,” he said. “It’s on the books. But there’s no active enforcement.”

Garamendi said he plans to ask all California districts for the source of their canned fruit. He wondered if others are ignoring federal guidelines.

“If they are, they should reconsider what they are doing,” he said.

Leticia Garcia, the mother of two first-graders at Phoebe Hearst Elementary School in East Sacramento, said her children are accustomed to bringing their lunches, though the cafeteria menu items sound incredibly good to her.

Still, she said, a district in the heart of farm-to-fork country “can’t be importing their fruit.”

“The moment we go to out to import our food,” she said, “we sort of break down that investment with our kids.”

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