Inquirer Editorial: No free lunches for dishonest school workers

A school lunch of meatballs, pasta, and green beans.
A school lunch of meatballs, pasta, and green beans. (ED HILLE / Staff)
Posted: July 25, 2013

The old saying that there is no such thing as a free lunch didn't stop a number of New Jersey school employees from trying. A troubling recent report by the state comptroller uncovered widespread fraud in lunch programs that the federal government subsidizes to feed needy children.

The investigation identified more than 100 people who allegedly lied about their income so that their children could get free or reduced-price meals. Even more egregiously, the culprits or their family members were on public payrolls, and they underreported their incomes by a staggering $13 million to get discounted meals. Among those caught milking the system were 40 school district employees and six school board members in Pleasantville, Newark, and Paterson.

One of the three implicated board members in the Atlantic County town of Pleasantville was reportedly not only duplicitous but arrogant. When asked by investigators why she failed to report her salary as a substitute teacher, she said of district officials, "It is none of their damn business."

The state investigation was launched after the Star-Ledger of Newark reported that it found school lunch fraud in Elizabeth. A school board member there was charged with obtaining subsidized meals for her children even though her family income exceeded the federal limit. State Comptroller Matthew Boxer concluded that "fraud in the school lunch program is widespread, and the vast majority of applications never receive a proper review."

More than 653,000 New Jersey students receive free or reduced-cost meals. The federal government pays for the bulk of the program, with the state contributing about $5.5 million a year.

Gov. Christie has rightly called for the dismissal and prosecution of every public employee who lied about his or her income to get a free lunch. But the state should not use the revelations as an opportunity to overhaul New Jersey's school funding formula, as Christie has suggested. School aid is based partly on how many children in a district get free lunches, which is an incentive for districts to look the other way rather than weed out ineligible students. But the funding formula is still based on the most accurate measure available, and tinkering with it may hurt needy children.

Instead, state and local officials should take further steps to identify fraud, such as more routine reviews of applications. Districts should also adopt Elizabeth's new practice of cross-checking applications against payroll data.

Schools with especially high enrollments of low-income children could adopt a model used in Philadelphia, where everyone gets a free meal, no questions asked.

Studies show that students are better prepared to learn when their bodies are well nourished. They should not suffer because of greedy adults looking for a free lunch.

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