Three unions that represent workers in the national school lunch supply chain sent a letter last week to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack asking for action to enforce the Buy America mandates in the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act.
Specifically, the letter from the presidents of the Teamsters (IBT), United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), and the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers, and Grain Millers (BCTGM) requests that the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) rescind a Trump-era rule that allows school districts to serve cheap imported food in public school cafeterias. Copies of the letter were also sent to the White House and to members of Congress.
“Because of the cost differential loophole, there is effective no Buy America program for America’s K-12 cafeterias,” said Walter “Wally” Borgan, President of BCTGM Local 22 in Minnesota, “but the Biden administration can fix that as part of its commitment to pro-worker procurement policy. This simple regulatory upgrade is in complete alignment with the President’s Executive Order on Buy America and the mandate of the new Made In America Council.”
“The members of the Teamsters’ Cannery Council, historically women of color, lose their jobs when their employers – companies and coops like Del Monte, Seneca Farms, and the California Canning Peach Association – cut production and close plants because public school children are getting served low-cost and unwholesome food from China,” said Ashley Alvarado, Food Processing Director for Teamsters Local 856 in California. “American grown fruits and vegetables are prepared to higher environmental and health standards than the Chinese product, so enforcing Buy America in the school lunch programs is good for the workers and their kids.”
“As the union representing 250,000 food workers around the country, we believe that federal taxpayer dollars should support good jobs for all of America’s food workers. A critical step to accomplishing this is for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to make it easier for local school districts to buy union, made-in-America products,” said Fernando Lemus, President of UFCW Local 1445 in Massachusetts. “As a supporter of the Good Food Purchasing Program (GFPP) here in Boston, I understand the importance of governments supporting good jobs with their procurement dollars.
Through the GFPP, we have demonstrated that if provided with adequate resources, school districts can strengthen existing local and regional food supply chains and create new ones while rewarding employers who respect workers’ rights and provide them with fair wages and benefits. Following the lead of Boston and other cities that have implemented the GFPP will go a long way toward USDA Secretary Vilsack’s goal of bolstering the resiliency of our food supply chains. By strengthening its commitment to Buy American, the USDA will support healthy meals for our children, invest in food chain workers, and make our food supply chains more resilient.”
Other organizations and networks support the unions’ demands: Several prominent farmer and agricultural groups are promoting federal legislation that will close the “cost differential” loophole, including the National Farmers Union and the American Farm Bureau. The National Council of Farmer Cooperatives is leading industry efforts to enforce Buy America in the school lunch supply chains. The Coalition for a Prosperous America has made Buy America a central feature of their larger “fair trade” agenda. See their recent blog Biden Touts Buy American. But Guess Where Your Public School’s Fish Sticks Come From (spoiler alert: Russian trawlers).
Coalitions that promote local sourcing for schools, like the Center for Good Food Purchasing and the National Farm to School Network, are working to bring local food sourcing and food and agriculture education into school systems and early care and education environments. Environmental groups have pointed out that unnecessarily importing food for school lunch programs increases the carbon footprint in that procurement supply chain, thereby exacerbating climate change.