TRENTON – After referring some 109 public employees and relatives for prosecution after finding that they fraudulently reported their incomes in order to gain free lunch eligibility for their kids, Comptroller Matthew Boxer made a series of recommendations Wednesday to prevent future fraud.
“What we learned in this investigation is because of the way this program is structured, there is minimal oversight resulting in people frequently lying on program applications on income amounts,” he said.
“In short, the free lunch program has been compromised.”
Boxer said public employees – teachers, aides, supervisors – were looked at because they may have had more knowledge about the inner workings of the program than the average parent.
“What we found are people who work for the government, lying to the government, about how much the government is paying them, all to benefit from a program that is designed to help those in need, ” he said.
Boxer said the individuals who underreported said they were under the impression they need to report their net income instead of gross income. But Boxer pointed out the application clearly asks for gross income.
He said the vast majority of free or reduced lunch applications go unchecked because federal law prohibits school districts from doing so unless they can prove there‘s a need to. He said only applications that fall within 3 percent of income limits have to be verified.
“As long as you lie big enough about your income to avoid being real close to the income limit, your application will go right through and you will be enrolled in the program without anyone ever checking whether you’re telling the truth.”
The recommendations to correct the problems include:
*Regular reminders to district officials about the importance of reporting accurate information to be eligible for the National School Lunch Program.
*School districts should each have a contact person who is well trained and knowledgeable about NSLP requirements in order for all questions to be answered.
*Have the state Agriculture Department and the Division of Family Development review the methodology being used for approvals in the program based on eligibility in other public assistance programs.
*Have the federal Agriculture Department issue a memo on the income verifications.
*Encourage school districts to use available employee salary information to cross-check their applications and to single out questionable ones.
*New Jersey should reconsider using just the sheer number of applications to determine state aid, in order to prevent fraud.
*Have NJDA provide guidance to school districts that may be experiencing a hard time getting certain employees from providing income information for verification.
*Give school districts greater ability to conduct a more widespread review of NSLP applications. Presently, only applications in which the income reported is within 3 percent of the income eligibility are required to be verified and cross-checked.