The federal government and California allocate thousands of dollars to providing free and reduced-price lunches at school to almost 2.4 million students from low-income homes.
The problem is that some school districts have been using part of those funds for other expenses that are not the healthy, nutritious meals they were meant for. These were the findings revealed in a report by the California Senate Office of Oversight and Outcomes, which analyzed how these funds were used over a period of several years.
Here we can see the failures of a complex system of state and federal controls without the resources to oversee the implementation of school meal programs. The oversight function falls to a few dozens of mostly nutritionists, who have no experience looking at accounting books. Therefore, all the irregularities described in the report came from whistle-blowers rather than oversight activities.
The report also shows that school authorities are willing to use lunch funds for other purposes, especially in this time of budget cuts.
Eight school districts were ordered by the California Department of Education to reimburse almost $170 million to the student meal programs. Of these, $150 million are to be repaid by the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD).
The fact that LAUSD is among the offenders is a big cause for concern. Even worse, the report indicates that LAUSD used the cafeteria money to buy lawn sprinklers and pay salaries of employees at the district’s TV station. The report also mentions that the lunch periods are very short, making it hard for more students to participate.
Diverting cafeteria funds for other purposes leads to poor food quality and cafeterias without maintenance or enough staff to manage an adequate food service operation. This situation is serious given the obesity epidemic at schools, where diabetes is now a sad reality.
Much has been said about how important it is for school districts to have more discretion in using funds. What happened with school lunches is a powerful argument that efficient oversight is also needed.