NJ Comptroller Report Uncovers Widespread Fraud in Free Lunch Program

Ted Sherman and Christoper Baxter of The Star-Ledger report that 3 members of the Atlantic County district lied about their income to allow their children to qualify for the federal free lunch program. A follow-up investigation by New Jersey Comptroller found that cheating in the state’s school lunch program was rampant.

The findings characterized the fraud as “widespread” and the investigation concluded that more than 100 people who were either employed by the state or were family members of state employees falsified their income information in order to meet the requirements for the lunch program meant to serve low-income families. Board members in Pleasantville, Newark and Patterson were among those named in the report.

Officials said the investigation was sparked by a series of stories two years ago by The Star-Ledger into similar lunch program abuses at the Elizabeth Board of Education.

“Our investigations division ultimately uncovered false information on applications submitted by school board members, teachers, other school employees as well as state, county and local employees,” state Comptroller Matthew Boxer said. “What we found are people who work for the government, lying to the government about how much the government is paying them — all to benefit from a program that is designed to help those in need.”

Comptroller Matthew Boxer said that more than $13 million in income went unreported, all so that the families could save $2.25 a day in lunch fees.

Those mentioned in the report will be referred for criminal prosecution. The names of those accused of wrongdoing weren’t disclosed in the report.

Although compared to the more than 650,000 students who qualify for the free school lunch program every year the number of those caught abusing the system is small, but the impact is greater than just the cost of lunch. New Jersey uses the federal lunch program data to determine district funding, and those schools with higher number of low-income students typically qualify for extra money.

The governor said Wednesday he will urge the Legislature to rethink the way New Jersey does school funding because “a large portion of it is based on numbers that are clearly fraudulent,” hurting municipalities that don’t cheat.

“What kind of system are we setting up here?” Christie asked. “A system to induce people to lie and cheat in order to get their fair share of school funding? It doesn’t seem to make sense.”

But the Education Law Center said the program, while not a perfect indicator of student poverty, remains the most accurate measure available. The advocacy group said it would strongly oppose any effort to uncouple the National School Lunch Program from New Jersey’s current school funding formula.