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California districts misuse school meal funds

Some California school districts are illegally dipping into student meal funds, misappropriating millions of dollars intended to feed the state's poorest children, according to an investigation by the state's Senate Office of Oversight and Outcomes.

The oversight of the federal lunch program in California is carried out "by a small overmatched team of state examiners who are mostly nutritionists and dieticians, not accountants," the report says. Officials with the California Department of Education "acknowledge they have no idea how big the problem may be and fear they have uncovered only a hint of the ongoing abuse."

"Cafeteria fund diversions contributed to conditions that discouraged the target population--poor, often hungry students--from seeking fee or reduced-lunch periods," the report says. The corners cut to save money included serving processed rather than fresh foods, short lunch periods, cafeterias that were allowed to become rundown and insufficient staffing.

The oversight system "offers glaring opportunities to disregard rules so complex that districts easily can and often do contest violations as arguable interpretations of the law. The money is not diverted for personal profit, the investigation found. "They are in most cases attempts by school districts to use cafeteria funds to pay for a greater share of personnel, utility and other costs."

Read the report from the California Senate Office of Oversight and Outcomes. (PDF file)

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