Under a new law signed by Governor Gavin Newsom, starting on January 1, 2024, California public institutions must prioritize American-made food in their food service offerings.
While not an absolute mandate, under Senate Bill 490, all public institutions that fall under the jurisdiction of California must purchase American-made foods unless their costs exceed 25% of imports from abroad. To address financial concerns, the state has allocated over $600 million to offset higher costs of domestically produced food.
Newsom released a signing statement for the bill. In it, he described the policy as “Buy American” and said it would benefit California’s agricultural industry and its workers. Newsom added that educators and students would gain access to high-quality, fresh food that would strengthen local economies.
Subsidy To Offset Costs
The California agricultural industry supports the measure, given the significant impact it can have on sustaining the sector.
However, some school districts are worried about the cost. Newsom recognizes that the bill will add to many public institutions’ food budgets. To combat that, Tory Flint, spokesperson of California’s School Boards Association, became a vocal advocate of the subsidy.
Flint observed that school districts across California were taking on extra costs to accommodate more staff as part of the nutrition program. In addition, Flint noted more part-time workers were transitioning to full-time roles with increased salaries.
Newsom agreed and supported the subsidy measure.
He acknowledged the bill could lead to costs beyond those allocated for subsidized meals. At this stage, Newsom has noted that the government will have to review requests for further funding before they could be signed off as part of SB 490.
Enforcement Is Not Covered
SB 490 does not possess any enforcement provisions, including penalties for non-compliance. Bill author, state Senator Anna Caballero, a Democrat serving the Salinas Valley and parts of the San Joaquin Valley, through spokesperson Elisa Rivera, stated that the bill will largely rely on the “honor system.”
While no penalties are associated with non-compliance, most school districts are expected to comply voluntarily with the mandate. If non-compliance becomes an issue, enforcement measures might be added.
Stabilization and Growth Are the Goals
The bill’s purpose is to stabilize and help grow California’s agricultural industry after the effects of the pandemic. Rich Hudgins, CEO of California Canning Peach Association, stated that growers struggled with increased competition from other nations’ agricultural operations.
SB 490, according to Hudgins, will directly help California’s growers by giving them priority, a move endorsed by the Teamsters and other unions.
Governor Newsom agreed with Hutchins. He also stressed that agricultural products within California and across the entire nation benefited from a more stringent process emphasizing environmental standards along with food safety.
He noted that the bill was a clear signal that the state of California was determined to invest in only the safest and highest quality food. In doing so, Newsom said the law demonstrated the government’s commitment to supporting the agricultural industry in California.