Tennessee Audit Reveals Millions of Dollars Diverted From Children’s Meal Programs – Tennessee Lookout

In the summer of 2020, as pandemic-induced unemployment rose across Tennessee, the state contracted two community groups in Shelby County to provide meals to children at risk of hunger in locations scattered around the whole county.

But when auditors from the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office made surprise visits to verify the programs, they found no children – and no food being served – at 17 of the 21 promised sites.

The two nonprofits – Open Door and Alumni Music – are among the most recent examples of what listeners described as “deceptive schemes” in child hunger programs overseen by the Department of Social Services. of Tennessee.

But these are not isolated cases.

State auditors have uncovered schemes involving millions of dollars in embezzled funds intended to provide meals and snacks to poor children over the past eight years in Tennessee – where one in four children are at risk of going hungry each day.

A spokesperson for the Department of Social Services, which oversees nutrition programs, said state officials continue to work closely with nonprofits, churches, after-school clubs and others. organizations that contract with them to provide food to “emphasize training and the program of the program”. conformity.”

“We also continue to explore additional testing and monitoring options consistent with federal mandates and to further strengthen the fidelity of these programs,” said an email from Devin Stone, the spokesperson.

State auditors uncovered schemes involving millions of dollars in embezzled funds intended to provide meals and snacks to poor children over the past eight years in Tennessee

Ministry officials are also looking to add new technology that would better monitor organizations participating in summer food programs. “The intent is that technology solutions help minimize program errors and reduce program results in the future,” she said.

The pandemic has brought unique challenges. Long-standing nutrition programs played a bigger role as education slipped away, parents lost their jobs, and children were left without the routine meals they received during the day. school. The state agency has issued waivers to allow child nutrition programs to operate in non-traditional ways, including allowing delivery or take-out meals, contrary to regular program rules.

“These waivers were intended to increase access to food while maintaining social distancing and promoting the safety of program operators and participants,” she said. “These waivers, however, have also created challenges for program operators and program monitors.”

DHS oversees two programs that provide meals and snacks to children in Tennessee: The Summer Food Services Program, which distributed about $20 million last fiscal year to community organizations, provides meals and snacks to children when the school is closed during the summer months.

The Children’s and Adult Food Program provided $58 million in fiscal year 2021 to year-round programs — after-school, church, boys’ and girls’ clubs, and daycares among them — to feed children and some adults with disabilities. All funding comes from the federal government, but state agencies like DHS serve as program managers, enrolling and verifying agencies that agree to provide food, pay bills, and monitor fraud.

While the majority of funding appears to be working as intended – providing lunches, dinners and snacks for children – the programs have proven to be easy targets for bad actors.

In total, between 2020 and 2021, more than $141,000 in payments made by Tennessee officials to child care centers, Boys and Girls Clubs, churches and nonprofits that were supposed to provide subsidized meals and snacks by the federal government to low-income children during the summer are now in question. , according to the state audit released earlier this month.

An additional $216,000 in federal dollars is now in dispute for year-round food programs, after a review found missing documents, daily sign-in sheets that were photocopied and redated to give the impression that they included several different meal services and demands for payment to feed more children than one site can physically accommodate.

A long history of fraud and poor record keeping for the program in Tennessee has been uncovered by the Tennessee Comptroller and federal authorities that dates back to 2014, when the department’s food program accounted for nearly 20% of serious deficiencies in the management of federal funding across the state. government.

A scathing 2015 audit revealed that unscrupulous entrepreneurs were pocketing funds intended for starving children. In one case, a contractor spent money on lavish bonuses, renovations and on-demand movies at hotels.

A 2016 federal review found several instances of lax oversight by DHS, including the inability to fire contractors who violated program rules, the inability to recover overpayments, and the inability to review how money was spent and insufficient staff to oversee the program. .

Between 2018 and 2019, the Comptroller’s Office identified four organizations that submitted tens of thousands of dollars in questionable bills for food, including days when surprise inspections found no children present.

Some of the failures identified are the result of poor documentation of child meal provision, rather than outright fraud, but Comptroller’s auditors noted that DHS is nonetheless responsible for strong budgetary control of nearly $80 million in taxpayer funding each year.

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