A new report from the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) has shown that a nationwide government program providing school lunches for low-income families has misspent 8% of its budget last year, totaling $996 million.
The program is meant to serve families who live at or below the federal poverty level.
The USDA has been found to have made multiple errors while certifying families for the program, allowing families in who did not qualify. In order to qualify, families lied about income, excluding the income of one parent in some cases, or family size.
In Wyoming alone, 34 applicants out of 442 investigated were found to not qualify for the program, and yet were enrolled. Wyoming received $14 million in federal funds for its free and reduced-price lunch program last year, and had 37% of its students receiving the services.
One applicant admitted that her child had filled out the application and she had merely signed it.
Wyoming recently tightened the way it enrolls students for these benefits to increase the system’s accuracy, said Tamra Jackson, nutrition supervisor for the Wyoming Department of Education.
The USDA has taken several steps to gain control over the situation in recent years. In 2013, it suggested that state agencies begin to review school districts every three years, instead of the current five years, to keep a closer watch on spending. In 2012 it was made clear that school districts can investigate school district employees applying for the lunch program.
Congress is currently working with the USDA to approve an automatic enrollment system, which would cut down on the errors currently being made. In some cases, it could eliminate the need for an application altogether by automatically enrolling students in the foster care system, or those whose families already have other sources of federal aid such as food stamps or enrollment in WIC.
This system is already in use in Wyoming.
“In Wyoming, we take the integrity of this program very seriously, both at the state level and the local level,” Jackson said. “Do we have people in the state, people that lie on applications? Absolutely. I’m sure we do.”
Another suggestion is a computer-matching program, which would cross-check applicants with reported household incomes to find people lying on their applications.
The report also suggests school districts investigate families who send in a second application after their first is rejected. It is believed that these families may be fudging their household income the second time around, reports Leah Todd for The Star-Tribune.
The GAO is an independent agency employed by the US Congress to serve as auditor, investigator and evaluator of various government programs and other services. It is frequently referred to as “The Tax Payer’s Best Friend”.