Congressman Rand Paul apparently does not understand how the federal school lunch program works. What else could possibly explain Paul’s gaffe in his recent Waste Report, where he accuses LAUSD of deliberately shortening lunch periods to deny food “already paid for” to its students?
The belief that schools are paid with government funds for meals before those meals are served to students reveals a deep and troubling misunderstanding – by a Presidential hopeful – of how federal school meal programs work.
As chair of the Senate Health Subcommittee on Children and Families, Paul ought to be better informed on the workings of a federal program that feeds over 30 million children a day.
Paul’s comments were immediately picked up and rebroadcast by The Hill, which reported:
“As a tactic to keep the funds from being used for lunches, Paul said the LAUSD reduced lunch periods to as little as 20 minutes in some schools, so students whose lunch was already paid for with federal funds would be unable to receive the food.”
And that’s how misinformation spreads.
Is it any wonder that most Americans have no understanding of how school meal programs work, when their leaders in Washington don’t understand either?
Paul was referring to a February 2013 report from the California Senate Office of Oversight and Outcomes (SOOO). The report examined the misuse of a total of nearly $170 million in cafeteria funds, often going back many years, at several school districts around the state. Nearly all of the abuse detailed in the report took place in Southern California districts, although SFUSD did get briefly mentioned for a minor infraction.
The most attention-grabbing culprit in the SOOO report was LAUSD, which was accused of improperly spending $158 million in school lunch funds, including purchasing outdoor sprinkler equipment with money intended for cafeteria use. As the report explains, federal law prohibits cafeteria funds from being spent on anything not directly linked to cafeteria operations.
Sprinkler systems fall clearly outside those parameters, as does paying the salaries of the district’s TV station employees, another LAUSD misuse of cafeteria funds mentioned by the LA Daily News in their 2013 coverage of the issue.
The SOOO report did mention, on its first page, that short lunch periods were one way that the schools named in the report were “shortchanging” students, stating “Los Angeles Unified, for example, has 20- and 30-minute lunch periods at many schools and continues to struggle with low participation rates among eligible students.” Note that lunch periods as short as 15 minutes are common in many US schools.
However, nowhere in the report is LAUSD accused of intentionally shortening lunch periods to deny food to “students whose lunch was already paid for with federal funds,” as Paul claimed.
That’s not how government payment for school meals works. Schools don’t get the money before they serve the meals – they get it after, often up to 3 months after.
Cafeteria staff are required to keep track of how many students eat lunch each day, and to record whether each student is qualified for free or reduced price meals, or is what is called a “paid” (ie – must pay) student. Then at the end of the month, there is a mountain of paperwork to fill out, breaking every meal down by how many students were free, or reduced, or paid, before the school district can apply for the government funds meant to pay for the meals.
By the time all of the required paperwork is prepared, sent to the state and processed, allowing the government payment to be made, it may be December before schools receive federal funds covering the cost of a lunch served in September.
Preventing students from eating a lunch that would be reimbursed (even 3 months later) with federal money would result in less – not more – revenue for the school meal program, because the cafeteria can only get the federal money after the meal has been served.
In fact the SOOO report mentions that, in 2011, LAUSD “requested a $70 million advance on its federal meal payments to cover cash flow at the start of a new school year. When the state balked, the district withdrew the request.”
The state balked because government payment for meals is only provided after the meals have been served to students, not before as Paul claims. There is no advance payment.
It’s odd that Paul would not have noticed that detail – if in fact he actually read the SOOO report he was citing in his Waste Report gaffe.
There is no doubt that the practices exposed in the SOOO report are troubling, and there is plenty to criticize about the way oversight of the federal school meal program is structured. But that doesn’t mean that the problems should be misrepresented, as Paul has done. All that does is confuse what is already a complex issue.
Every member of Congress cannot be expected to understand the ins and out of every federal program. That’s why they have staffers, to brief them on what they need to know, so that they don’t send out a statement that makes them sound like a damn fool.
With school meal programs part of the Child Nutrition Reauthorization that Congress is currently working to complete this year, it is vital that our elected officials base their views on an accurate understanding of the programs they control. That goes double for those who seek the Office of the Presidency.
Perhaps it was a staffer in Paul’s office who skimmed the SOOO report (or worse, just glanced at the executive summary) and jumped to a false conclusion, but it was Rand Paul, Presidential Candidate, who opined publicly and wrongly on a program he clearly does not understand.
Dana Woldow has been a school food advocate since 2002 and shares what she has learned at PEACHSF.org. Follow her on Twitter @nestwife, or read more than 140 characters of her writing in her complete archive.
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