Fighting fraud in school lunch program

Jul 21, 2013 by

TRENTON — Much of the fraud in New Jersey’s school lunch program, brought to light last week by the state comptroller, could have been detected had districts checked the pay records of their own employees, officials said.

But the state Agriculture Department, which administers the program, failed to alert school districts last year to a clarification of federal rules allowing the use of employee salary records.

Agriculture officials called the failure an “oversight.”

“School districts should use all tools available to screen applicants, including plainly available public information to verify income eligibility,” a department spokeswoman said. “As the comptroller’s report states, there was an oversight at the Department of Agriculture, and we intend to follow through and issue the earlier advice in that regard from the federal government.”

State Comptroller Matthew Boxer said the failure was one of several miscues in the administration of the National School Lunch Program — one that led to widespread cheating by teachers, administrators and even school board members who allegedly lied about their income to get free meals for their school-age kids.

Boxer also criticized districts for inadequately documenting income claims with pay stubs of applicants, and said other schools continued benefits for people who should have been removed from the program.

“Shortcomings in the verification process being used by school districts are compounding the problems associated with program design,” the comptroller said.

The school lunch program offers state and federal subsidies to provide free or reduced-cost breakfast and lunch to children of families who meet income-eligibility requirements, which take into account both the number of children and total income. Under the rules, a family of four cannot earn more than $30,615 to qualify for free meals, according to the current guidelines.

This past school year, more than 653,000 students in New Jersey received free or reduced-cost meals, state officials said.

The investigation by the comptroller, which focused on public employees, uncovered more than 100 people who falsified their income so their kids could eat in school for free. Among those caught were 40 employees in 15 school districts — whose salaries could have been easily checked — as well as six school board members in Pleasantville, Newark and Paterson.

“One easy step the districts can take is just to do a little homework,” Boxer said at a news conference, in discussing the extent of the fraud. “Check who works in their district, is in the program, and just compare that to the income amounts that they know of.”

The clarification of the income verification rules came in a February 2010 memo from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

School districts typically are permitted to pull a sample of just 3 percent of all lunch program applications to review whether a household qualifies for subsidized school meals based on reported income levels. But the state comptroller found dozens of cases in which people lied about their income.

The memo from the Agriculture Department’s Food and Nutrition Service made it clear that districts could use the salary information of their own employees to verify program eligibility.

The state Agriculture Department received the memo, but never distributed it to school districts around New Jersey.

Meanwhile, the state Attorney General’s Office said it is reviewing the report, after Boxer referred for prosecution the names of the more than 100 public employees, or family members, who allegedly provided false information about their income on school lunch applications.

The state already has charges pending against a number of school officials in Elizabeth, in a case that was sparked by a series of stories two years ago in The Star-Ledger about abuses in the district’s lunch program.

The report also cited cases of districts taking extensive measures to encourage the submission of applications, such as hosting barbecues and sign-up fairs — due to school funding formulas in New Jersey that are based in part on the number of children getting free lunches. The more kids in a district that are deemed at the poverty level, the more money may be allocated to a school.

“The problem is there is no incentive to follow the proper and lawful procedures,” said Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for Gov. Chris Christie. “In fact, as the comptroller’s report states, there is a motivation for individuals and districts to game the program for funding.”

via State failed to alert school districts of rules changes to fight fraud in school lunch program |

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