Budget & Finance

California Districts Misuse School Meal Funds, Report Finds

By Lesli A. Maxwell — February 06, 2013 2 min read
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Several California school districts—including Los Angeles Unified—have been illegally diverting tens of millions of dollars in federal and state funds meant to pay for school meals programs for low-income students, a new investigation by the California State Senate has found.

According to the new report, released today, the California department of education was already starting to go after several districts for misappropriation of school meals funds. The investigators with the state Senate’s office of oversight and outcomes contend that those cases are probably just the tip of the iceberg in California, where deep cuts to education spending in recent years may have exacerbated the problem.

As the report points out, deliberate misuse of school meals funds is a federal crime and carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $25,000 fine. It is rarely prosecuted.

In Los Angeles Unified, for example, state officials found more than $158 million in misuse of school meal funds over six years, according to the report. And in other large districts, such as San Diego, Santa Ana, and San Francisco, state education officials also found examples of misappropriations.

The upshot of the misuse of funds, say investigators, is that students who should and could be benefiting from free- and reduced-price meals, are missing out.

The report also says that districts cut corners to save money from their cafeteria budgets by serving more processed foods rather than fresh, shortening lunch periods so not all students could be served, and not hiring enough staff to provide an appealing meals program to students who need it. The problem has been especially acute at the secondary level, they found.

California gets more than $2 billion a year from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for school meal subsidies and the state provides districts with an additional $145 million a year, the report says.

The Senate investigators said the misappropriation cases that came to the attention of the state education agency did so mostly through whistle-blowers in the districts. The state oversight system for school meals programs is woefully inadequate for monitoring, the report found.

The misuses of funds highlighted in the report did not involve people taking them for personal gain, but were for the most part attempts by districts to use cafeteria funds to cover other costs.

“Food Fight: Small Team of State Examiners No Match for Schools That Divert Student Meal Funds” is chock full of intriguing tales from inside districts’ food-services divisions and calls for the state to put a much more stringent system of oversight into place.

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.