For a lot of school age youth, life seems to revolve around “doing what is cool;” however, many students find that the “cool worries,” like what to wear and who to be friends with, take a back seat. Their concern of their day is not where to sit at lunch, but rather, will they even get to eat a lunch?  Like schools across the country, Chicago schools participate in the federal free lunch program, which provides students in need with at least one guaranteed hot meal per day.  But what happens when people take advantage of this help?  It creates a food fight – perhaps not the literal ones depicted on movies, but a more serious food fight, threatening the ability for such free lunch programs to continue.

A recent story from the Chicago Tribune highlighted the problem of school lunch fraud, reporting on findings of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) Inspector General who discovered “more than a dozen instances of falsified lunch applications among city and school employees” at one local high school.  The report raised the question of whether this type of fraud could be occurring throughout the rest of the district.

How is the fraud perpetrated?  According to the article, the problem is lack of verification.  “Paper-based applications to the program are based on self-reported income figures, but by federal mandate CPS is not allowed to check more than a fraction of the qualifying applications.”  (No checks and balances.  I bet there is plenty of fraud here!)  CPS is trying to put a stop to school lunch fraud and is on record asking the government for assistance with verification efforts.

And now the issue has reached Capitol Hill.  Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois recently sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack asking how the department will “’bolster eligibility verification measures’” in the school lunch program.  But while officials involved continue to push for assistance, there is the fear of pushing to point of deletion of the program.  The article quoted Durbin as saying:  “I don’t want to push so hard that people say, ‘Oh, let’s forget that program.’ It’s a critically important program for kids from poor families.”

So how do we stop this type of fraud if the push for assistance in verifying eligibility keeps hitting a dead end?  (This sure cries out for a public records solution.)  That is the question officials are trying to answer – as for now, the program allows undeserving individuals to falsify information and order a slice of pizza, with a side of fraud.

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