L.A. Schools Misspent Money Intended for Student Lunches

Lunchtime | Photo: usdagov/Flickr/Creative Commons License

I've been talking to local farmers and managers of farmers markets recently to solicit their opinions regarding the recent introduction of the new AB 199 (the so-called "Choose California Act") into legislature. (More on this bill later this week, but the quick and dirty rundown of it is that it'll force California schools, prisons and hospitals to buy food from inside the state.) While the response has been generally positive throughout, a common refrain from farmers has been "this seems good, but I'm skeptical of how the state spends money in general."

One of the farmers I spoke to, Lefty Ayers from ReRide Ranch, summed up the grand sentiment perfectly:

Say they do implement this bill, it doesn't mean that the money's going to be spent right.

This was a few moments after Lefty referenced this sad story from the L.A. Times, one that certainly should give state residents cause for hesitancy when it comes to trusting how the government spends tax dollars.

The report details how districts throughout the state have been, oh, let's say "less than great" when it comes to spending funds intended for student lunches. A grand total of eight school districts (stretching from San Diego up to San Francisco) are being forced to pay back more than $170 million after they were found to be using funds intended for school lunch programs on ... things that weren't that at all. Of those eight, by far the worst culprit was L.A. Unified School District, which is on the hook to repay more than $158 million.

And just where were they funneling all that money to anyway? Mostly, it was to pay for personnel or utilities across the school system. LAUSD, for instance, was found to have spent some of that money on a new sprinkler system and on salaries of folks working at a district TV station. So no, it's not a grand scheme by a superintendent to fund a trip to Tahiti or anything. (Although, maybe it's best to stay tuned what else is dug up.) Instead, the money was used for generally necessary items, making this seem like a case of good intentions gone awry.

Unfortunately, it's a whole lot of awry.

Here you go -- the saddest passage you'll read today:

The diversion of funds often contributes to conditions that discourage eligible students from seeking free or reduced-priced meals.To maximize funds, districts have used cost-saving methods of serving processed rather than fresh foods, shortening lunch periods and cutting back on cafeteria maintenance and staff -- all of which hinder student participation, the report said.

How did this diversion of funds manifest itself? The report found that from the 2004-2005 through the 2010-2011 school years, the number of students eligible for a free or reduced-priced meal throughout California were 71% and 74%, respectively. In LAUSD, though? Those numbers drop substantially, to only 51% and 60%. In other words, L.A. Unified, in order to pay for the aforementioned items, made it tougher and tougher for students in need of free/cheap school lunch options (kids coming from low-income or poverty level households) to get them. As chief deputy superintendent of public instruction Richard Zeiger put it:

They are literally taking food out of the mouths of kids.

On the heirarchy of despicable acts, this is pretty far up there. Frankly, this is how you end up with farmers looking at the new Choose California Act, a bill that should be a slam-dunk for them, and be very skeptical about the whole endeavor. After all, how can you trust someone that will take food from hungry kids?

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About the Author

Rick Paulas has written plenty of things, some of them serious, many of them not, scattered over the vast expanses of the Internet. He lives in Los Angeles and is a White Sox fan.
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