SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — California school districts have misappropriated millions of dollars intended to provide subsidized meals to low-income students, according to a state Senate report released Wednesday.
The California Department of Education recently ordered eight districts to repay nearly $170 million to programs that provide free and reduced-price lunches and breakfasts, according to the investigation by the Senate Office of Oversight and Outcomes.
The districts, which have been struggling with state budget cuts, used the misappropriated funds to pay for employee salaries and other expenses, according to the report prepared for the Senate Rules Committee.
The meal fund diversions have led to cost-cutting moves, such as shorter lunch periods, inadequate staffing and serving processed foods instead of fresh fruits and vegetables, the report said.
The cases mentioned in the report may only represent a fraction of misappropriated meal money in California because the state doesn't have the resources to monitor how its nearly 3,000 school districts spend their cafeteria funds, the report said. Most of the investigations were prompted by whistleblowers.
"From my point of view, they are literally taking food out of the mouths of kids," said Richard Zeiger, chief deputy state superintendent of public instruction. "They say, 'Well, we can do it cheaper.' I say you should do it better."
Department officials identified more than $158 million in misappropriations and unallowable charges at the Los Angeles Unified School District during a six-year period, according to the report.
LAUSD officials did not immediately comment on the report.
The Department of Education disallowed meal fund charges at a dozen other districts, including San Diego Santa Ana, the report said. Those two districts are challenging the department's findings.
California school districts provide 2.4 million free and reduced-price lunches every day. The U.S. Department of Agriculture provides more than $2 billion a year in meal subsidies to California, which provides an additional $145 million.