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A new federal report says the government program that funds school lunches for low-income families nationwide misspent about $996 million, or 8 percent of its budget, last fiscal year.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has made several steps in recent years to prevent ineligible families from receiving free and reduced prices in the lunch line, but more can be done, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office report.

Wyoming recently tightened the way it enrolls students for these benefits to increase the system's accuracy, said Tamra Jackson, nutrition supervisor for the Wyoming Department of Education. The state requested $14 million in federal funds to reimburse free or reduced-price lunches for roughly 34,000 students during the 2012-13 school year. 

The WDE investigated 442 applications and found 34 to be in error last year, according to the agency.

The report said the USDA made an estimated $996 million in errors in 2013 while certifying families for the program, which offers free and reduced lunch prices to students whose families live near or below federal poverty levels. 

In nearly half the cases inspected in the report, households were not actually eligible for the free or reduced-price meals they were receiving. Families had excluded the income of a parent, lied about their household size and understated their income.

In one instance, an applicant said her children completed the school lunch application and she signed it, according to the report.

An automatic certification program lauded in the report and used in Wyoming is intended to cut down on the number of errors like that, Jackson said.

The program has been used in Wyoming for about five years, and in some cases can eliminate the application process by automatically certifying students in foster care or whose family is eligible for other social services, like food stamps.

"In Wyoming, we take the integrity of this program very seriously, both at the state level and the local level," Jackson said. "Do we have people in the state, people that lie on applications? Absolutely. I'm sure we do."

In recent years, the USDA has worked with Congress to write legislation to endorse an automatic enrollment system, like what is used in Wyoming, the report said. The agency also increased how often states must review school districts for compliance and clarified that school districts can investigate applications for school employees who lie about their income.

But the USDA can do more to make sure the right students are receiving lunch discounts, the report said.

It could crack down on school districts not reviewing all questionable applications, for instance. School districts could look into households that turn in a second application with a different income level after their first application is rejected, the report said.

The USDA also recommended piloting a computer-matching program to cross-check school meal participants with other records of household income, like state income databases, to identify people fudging applications.

Reach education reporter Leah Todd at 307-266-0592 or Follow her on Twitter @leahktodd.


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