Northern Virginia schools may be giving free or reduced-price lunches to twice the number of children eligible for them, according to a report by a retired federal auditor released yesterday.
Tim Wise, the retired auditor who serves as president of the 600-member Arlington County Taxpayers Association, said that the proportion of students who claim eligibility for the program is much higher in Northern Virginia than in other parts of the state and that more than half of families are disqualified when their incomes are checked.
The report focuses on nationwide problems in the half-century-old National School Lunch Act that have led the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Agriculture to identify $31 million in annual overpayments in the state of Illinois alone. The $5 billion lunch program affects nearly every American community and provides the key statistical benchmark for the level of poverty at U.S. schools.
School officials in Northern Virginia sharply questioned Wise's conclusions and accused him of distorting information on abuses. The high disqualification rate for families whose eligibility is checked, they said, may stem from reasons unrelated to violation of the rules.
Some officials argued that any overspending is going to feed children whose families are just beyond the eligibility line and for whom nutrition means more learning at school.
"Kids who eat better do better," said Ralph Schobitz, food service director for the Alexandria schools. "We get desks and chairs and toilet paper for all of these kids. Maybe we ought to be getting food for them, too."
Wise said the first sign of a problem in Arlington was the results of the last two lunch-program audits, a routine annual check in which about 1 percent of families in the program are asked to confirm that their incomes are still low enough to qualify.
Children from families with income at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty level ($21,385 for a family of four) are eligible for free lunches and breakfasts.
Those between 130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty level ($30,433 for a family of four) are eligible for reduced price meals, for which students can be charged no more than 40 cents.
Of 180 Arlington families checked in the fall of 1997 and 1998, Wise said, 64 percent were removed from the program or had their support reduced. Food service officials in Fairfax County, Alexandria and the District said yesterday more than half of the families they checked in 1998 were also declared ineligible.
Despite Arlington's high dismissal rate, there are no federal regulations that require school districts to expand their audits to include more than 1 percent of all participants. Even after the U.S. Agriculture Department inspector general reported 19 percent of Illinois families ineligible in a check of that state, Wise said, federal officials declined to order more audits.
"Wasting millions of taxpayer dollars, apparently, is okay," Wise said.
School officials said Wise ignored the fact that Arlington, Alexandria and Fairfax audits only participants whose incomes are within $100 of being ineligible. "In that case you would expect to find a lot of ineligible families," said Marshall Abbate, assistant food service director in Fairfax.
Arlington schools spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said the state has told the county it is in full compliance with all lunch-program rules.
Officials in Arlington, Alexandria and Fairfax, as well as the D.C. and Montgomery County schools, said most of the families cut from the program are declared ineligible because they fail to respond to the letters. Wise, in an interview, acknowledged that immigrant families who move often and have trouble reading English may be less likely to respond, although the letters often include translations into Spanish and other languages.
Wise said he was not moved by the notion that wasted money in the lunch program was not so bad because it fed children and helped them be more alert in class.
"That is just pure hogwash," he said. "My dad was a coal miner. My mother used to put in my lunch nothing more than a peanut butter sandwich, an apple and a piece of dessert."
Even families with incomes slightly above the poverty level can afford to provide lunch, he said. "It just seems to me people are taking advantage of the free lunch program who should not," he said.
Wise said he was suspicious of the ratio of children eligible for free and reduced lunches in Northern Virginia compared with children below the poverty line in different parts of Virginia.
For instance, for every poor child in Richmond, there are 1.6 children in the lunch program. In Arlington, however, there were 3.2 children in the program for every one below the poverty line.
School officials said the ratios could be affected by a different mix of incomes in different parts of the state and have nothing to do with fraud in the lunch program.
Staff writers Amy Argetsinger and Debbi Wilgoren contributed to this report.