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By Michael Doyle, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — School districts in California, Florida, and Texas are providing free or low-cost meals to ineligible students, Agriculture Department auditors warn in a new report.

The failures cost taxpayers millions of dollars in benefits provided to children from households whose income was later found to be excessive or unsupported, auditors say. With 97 percent of the assisted households not double checked at all, the full cost is unknown.

Auditors suggest it might be time to require more proof of poverty from families applying for free or low-cost meals.

“The act of turning in income documentation with applications may discourage applicants from being dishonest about household income levels,” the Agriculture Department’s Office of Inspector General noted in the report made public this week.

But while USDA officials acknowledge the room for improvement and say they have the legal authority to require income documentation, they also resist imposing new application barriers.

“Significant other legal, policy, and operational concerns remain,” the department’s Food and Nutrition Service stated.

Requiring applicants for free or low-cost meals to submit proof of income “could create barriers to participation for eligible children (and) cause significant administrative and record-keeping burden for participating schools,” the agency stated.

Elyse Homel Vitale, a nutrition policy specialist with California Food Policy Advocates, added in an interview Wednesday that the most “administratively efficient” means of checking applicants is “direct certification.” Instead of requiring separate applications and documentation, families already found eligible for other federal food or cash assistance programs are automatically enrolled in school meals.

“Having schools take additional steps to verify eligibility may not be the best use of their resources,” Vitale said.

The National School Lunch Program operates in more than 100,000 schools and institutions nationwide; the newer School Breakfast Program serves somewhat fewer. Upward of 31 million children eat free or low-cost meals every day, at an annual cost of some $15 billion.

Texas and California lead the nation in participation, with 3.3 million and 3.2 million children, respectively, served under the school lunch program. In Florida, 1.6 million children benefited last year.

Within each state, some regions in particular rely on the federal aid. In California’s San Joaquin Valley, as many as 78 percent of schoolchildren in certain counties are eligible for the free or low-cost meals. In Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston, more than half a million children participate.

Auditors examined school regions authorized to operate nutrition programs that included 17 schools each in California and Texas and 26 schools in Florida. The individual districts and schools were not named. Schools were also examined in Delaware, Rhode Island, and Wyoming, where participation rates are much lower.

Children from families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the poverty level are eligible for free meals, while those at or below 185 percent of the poverty level can get reduced-price meals. Currently, families can simply attest to their income and need not show proof. Districts, in turn, must take small samples to verify eligibility.

Often, there are errors. A separate study released by the Food and Nutrition Service this week found that roughly ten percent of school lunch or breakfast program payments were improper, a combination of underpayments and, mostly, overpayments amounting to about $1.5 billion.

“Reducing errors in our school meal programs is a top priority for USDA,” Kevin Concannon, undersecretary for food, nutrition, and consumer services, said in a statement.

The Office of Inspector General auditors noted that in one large, unnamed California district, 886 out of 1,020 sampled households turned out to be ineligible for the level of meal aid received.

“Based on these results, we conclude that it is likely that other students receiving free or reduced-price meals may not be eligible for them,” auditors stated.

In Texas, auditors found a district where 796 out of 1,198 sampled households didn’t respond to a request for documents. In Florida, auditors found a woman who had submitted a pay stub indicating she was married, even though her meal application said she was single.

“FNS is at risk for improper payments because there is no assurance that household self-reported income is accurate,” auditors cautioned.

Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture via Flickr

Reprinted with permission from Alternet

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