Bill could mandate that state institutions purchase food locally

Michael Drummond/Staff

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The California State Legislature is currently considering the passage of legislation that would require state institutions to purchase food grown or produced in the state before buying products from out-of-state or other countries.

If passed, Assembly Bill 199, the “Choose California” bill, would mandate that state institutions purchase foods from California farms so long as their prices are not more than 5 percent more expensive than identical items from outside the state.

Public schools would be exempt from this 5 percent threshold and would only be required to purchase from in-state producers if competing out-of-state products cost the same amount or were less expensive, according to Noelle Cremers, director of natural resources and commodities at the California Farm Bureau Federation.

The bureau, a nonprofit nongovernmental organization made up of 53 county farm bureaus whose stated purpose is to protect and promote the state’s agricultural interests, supports the legislation.

“(The bill) would help promote California-grown agricultural products,” Cremers said. “The state should play a leadership role in supporting our farmers and showing the importance of purchasing homegrown products to its citizens.”

AB 199 was introduced in late January by Assemblymember Chris Holden, D-Pasadena. The bill will soon be heard in the state Assembly’s Committee on Accountability and Administrative Review as well as the Committee on Agriculture, said Wendy Gordon, Holden’s press secretary, in an email.

“Fresh, locally-sourced produce and products are always a plus for public institutions such as state hospitals, prisons, and other state-run organizations,” Gordon said in the email. “We are optimistic the lawmakers and governor will see the value in this bill — not only to farmers but also those who will be eating fresher, locally sourced foods.”

The bill’s potential impact on the state budget is still unknown, as is whether it will benefit large farms or smaller ones and whether it will affect the amount of conventional produce grown in the state in comparison to organic crops. Cremers said she does not think the bill would change the current balance between organic and conventional products.

The UC Office of the President has yet to review the bill to take a position on it, according to spokesperson Brooke Converse. In 2008, Cal Dining worked with Buy Fresh, Buy Local, an initiative of the Community Alliance with Family Farmers, to pledge that the campus food service will purchase a minimum of 10 percent of its food products from local sources. Cal Dining is currently purchasing 60 percent of its produce from within a 16-county radius of campus, according to its website.

Schools in the Berkeley Unified School District would not be affected by the bill’s passage because the district does not purchase from out-of-state, according to district spokesperson Mark Coplan. Berkeley’s geographic location allowed it to more easily adopt a local foods model compared to other districts throughout the state, he said.

Coplan noted that 30 percent of the food in the schools is organic and comes from within 50 miles.

“It’s something that the Legislature needs to help school districts achieve,” Coplan said. “It’s something everyone needs to do, and it’s something that schools need help funding.”

A similar bill was passed by the state Legislature 2001 but was vetoed by governor Gray Davis, and a 2010 effort ended shortly after the bill was introduced in the state Assembly Committee on Appropriations.

Levon Minassian covers food news. Contact him at [email protected].