Fed-State Pilot Program Aims to Curb Free Lunch Abuse

Illinois is to be part of a six-state pilot program during the 2012-2013 school year that will use the new direct certification process to add Medicaid recipients to those families automatically qualifying for new free school lunches. The program is administered by the USDA.

"By relying upon existing data, we streamline operations, reduce payment errors and improve the efficiency of operations at the federal and local level," U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement. "At the same time we are ensuring that we deliver healthy meals to more eligible kids so that they have access to the nutrition they need to learn and excel."

However, while ensuring that the program is expanded to include all vulnerable children who need the free meals to avoid hunger and associated learning problems, there is widespread concern that the system is being abused by inadequate checking of applications and misguided incentives for high enrollment in the program.

Currently 76% of children in Chicago public schools receive free lunches and a further 6% receive discounts. Few of these applications are checked so it's difficult to quantify how many of these students obtained the free meals by fraud.

A Tribune analysis in January highlighted concerns about fraud in the federal school lunch program within Chicago Public Schools because of layers of bureaucracy, incentives for high enrollment, and minimal checks and balances. The report found that under federal law, schools in CPS and across the U.S. are allowed to review for accuracy only a fraction of the free and reduced lunch applications it receives. In CPS' case, it was less than 1 percent of the total applications.

Similar concerns have been voiced recently in New Jersey where Governor Chris Christie announced a task force to crack down on widespread fraud and abuse within the Free and Reduced Price School Lunch Program. Christie has set up this task force to ensure that more education dollars get to the economically disadvantaged children who need them most rather than getting misdirected.

Democratic Illinois Senator Dick Durbin applauds the announcement:

"Many parents would not be able to pay for their children to eat lunch without this program, but recent reports of abuse and fraud within the system threaten to damage the integrity of the program," Durbin said in a statement. "I commend the USDA for taking action today by partnering with Illinois schools to find a way to increase access to such an important program while hopefully reducing the possibilities for error and fraud."

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