Food Fight: Small team of state examiners no match for schools that divert student meal funds

Source: Jim Sweeney, California Senate Office of Oversight and Outcomes, February 6, 2013

Squeezed by years of unrelenting budget cuts, some California school districts are illegally dipping into student meal funds, misappropriating millions of dollars intended to feed California’s poorest children.

In recent years, in cases that seldom receive any public attention, the California
Department of Education (CDE) has ordered eight districts to repay nearly $170 million to student meal programs. Perhaps more troubling, department officials candidly acknowledge they have no idea how big the problem may be and fear they may have uncovered only a hint of the ongoing abuse, an investigation by the Senate Office of Oversight and Outcomes has found.

The uncertainty reflects a challenged oversight system designed by the federal government, but carried out by a small, overmatched team of state examiners who are mostly nutritionists and dietitians, not accountants. Nutritional standards are their top priority and the system is set up to be collaborative, with prearranged inspections of cafeterias and food service operations. Perhaps as a result, most of the recent investigations have been triggered by whistleblowers.

…Cost-saving shortcuts included serving processed rather than fresh foods, short lunch periods, rundown cafeterias and insufficient staff to properly plan and manage an optimum food service operations…