California schools call on Gov. Newsom to veto SB 490: Bill diverts funds from the classroom and undermines the state’s universal meals program
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Sept. 21, 2022) – While most of the country was trying to spend less at the grocery store, the California Legislature passed Senate Bill 490 (Caballero, D-Merced), legislation that would guarantee schools pay substantially more for the food they serve students. Only a veto from Gov. Gavin Newsom can prevent this reckless bill from becoming law and threatening the stability of the state’s new universal meals program.
SB 490 used a patriotic notion, buying American, to gain support and avoid scrutiny of its harmful impact on public education. The bill would forbid California’s TK-12 schools and all public institutions that receive federal meal reimbursement funding from buying foreign food products unless the international option is at least 25 percent less expensive than the domestic alternative. That restriction would cost TK-12 schools an additional $474 million, or $85 per student annually, an unacceptable increase at a time when rising costs and substantial inflation have already placed a strain on school meal budgets.
“Schools almost always buy California produce when the price and quality is similar or better than the foreign alternative. Purchasing from foreign countries is a last resort to help contain costs and prevent expenditures for meal programs from encroaching on the general fund and diverting resources that would otherwise be directed to the classroom,” said California School Boards Association (CSBA) CEO & Executive Director Vernon M. Billy. “Schools are working hard to implement the state’s new universal meals program, incurring significant costs as they hire new nutrition services employees, build out kitchens and nutritional facilities, and convert part-time staff to full-time positions. Imposing what amounts to a tariff on ingredients needed for school meals jeopardizes these efforts.”
While buying American is a laudable goal, good public policy requires more than patriotic rhetoric. Subsidizing the agricultural industry at the expense of California students will not make this state or this country stronger. There are better ways to support produce growers than what amounts to a transfer of funds from public schools to big agriculture.
In addition to its poor design, SB 490 is patently unfair as it singles out the public education sector for special, punitive treatment. Under SB 490, the state’s educational agencies would be impacted the most by the 25 percent requirement, which is five times higher than the current threshold. These arbitrary stipulations have united the state’s school districts and county offices of education against this bill.
“If SB 490 is approved by the Governor, we will be unable to provide children with school meals without going into debt," said Jennifer Davis, California School Nutrition Association president and Kern High School District director of Nutrition Services. "Under federal law, when a school meal program has a debt, that debt must be repaid — not by the meal program, but through the school’s general fund. This means school programs would be cut or eliminated to fulfill the debt.”
The negative effects SB 490 would have on schools has prompted some creative justifications from the bill’s supporters. Despite statements to the contrary, the bill’s author and sponsors did not advocate for a budget request to augment the state's meal reimbursement rate and defray the financial impact of SB 490. Instead, the $611.8 million budget appropriation they claim is meant to pay for SB 490 was designed to pay for the substantial additional labor costs associated with the state’s universal meals program and was included in the state budget more than two months before SB 490 was amended. CSBA urged the author’s office and sponsors to include an additional budget request to fund SB 490, but they declined to do so.
The refusal to include a budget request to fund SB 490 is particularly relevant given the veto letters that Gov. Newsom has written while deciding the fate of other bills this month, noting that, “bills with significant fiscal impact, such as this measure, should be considered and accounted for as part of the annual budget process.”
SB 490 is a poorly designed bill that attempts to cover its holes by wrapping itself in the flag. That’s not good enough for this state, its schools or its students. We call on Gov. Newsom to veto SB 490.
CSBA is a nonprofit association representing nearly 1,000 PreK-12 school districts
and county offices of education throughout California.