By Ellie Price
An estimated one third of Indiana students receiving free or reduced-price lunches do not actually qualify for the federal program, according to audits the Indiana Department of Education detailed for lawmakers on Monday.
Julie Sutton, the department's director of school and community nutrition, told the Indiana Health Financial Commission that 47.5 percent of Indiana students receive the discounted meals.
That number has increased since lawmakers changed the formula that determines school funding to give more to schools with higher numbers of free- and reduced-lunch students, she said.
"If a third are misrepresenting their income, that's a lot of dollars that are flowing from Indiana taxpayers," said state Rep. Eric Turner, R-Cicero, a member of the commission.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture provides the funding for the school meal program but state taxpayers provide the revenue used for the school funding formula.
Families must provide a list of household members' work earnings on an application for the meals, but they are not required to provide documentation, Sutton said.
Indiana school corporations must audit 3 percent of the families of free or reduced-price meal recipients. The Department of Education found that 33 percent of those audited do not meet the eligibility requirements and are therefore committing fraud.
Sutton said many school corporations would like to audit more applications, but are not allowed to after a change the U.S. Department of Agriculture made a few years ago.
"That 3 percent is a maximum," Sutton said. "We're not allowed to verify more."
When school corporations find students who are receiving the meals but do not qualify, they take those students off the program. If families later wish to reapply, they must provide documentation.
"They're stealing because they're misrepresenting their income," Turner said. "But we have no process for prosecuting those individuals."
Each lunch costs approximately $2.50, and students who qualify can receive the meals for all 180 days of the school year.
The federal government pays for the Indiana Department of Education to administer the program, plus a per-meal rate for the households that qualify for free and reduced-price meals.
Members of the Health Finance Commission asked the education department to provide them with the number of fraudulent cases per school corporation.
Ellie Price is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students and faculty.