OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – Black-owned community centers and day care food programs that say they were unfairly fined and shut down for what they’re calling perceived deficiencies are filing complaints against the Oklahoma State Department of Education’s Office of Child Nutrition Programs.
Several of the business owners told KFOR they were up and running for years before they were hit with big penalties and shut down.
Gina Darby: “For years we relied on this program to feed our babies.”
Longtime community and education advocate Gina Darby – who ran a food program under the name, Impact Athletics Inc., said she, her husband and their team began feeding students of all backgrounds in the summer of 2014.
“We’ve always serviced underprivileged kids in underprivileged areas,” she said, adding that the program ran for seven years.
“And throughout those years we never had deficiencies, never had problems with our program,” Darby added, while saying they were suddenly penalized by a 2021 audit and corrective action plan that she appealed.
In the meantime, she said they tried to keep up the food program on their own.
“After about a year of feeding on our own, it just become too much … so many of us were already donating so much that we just couldn’t continue,” she said.
Darby said she was also hit with a six-figure penalty that she is still fighting.
“I didn’t know that other people were being affected like this until I started talking to other people that have food programs,” she added.
“I started to open my mouth and found it out that there were other people that are experiencing the same thing and they all look like me,” said Darby.
Marquise Miller: “My business had been on food program probably ten of the fourteen years [that] we’ve been here.”
Marquise Miller owns a childcare center, Wonderfully Made Learning Center. While he said a case against his center was dismissed after he got a lawyer, he’s been banned from applying for other federal funding.
“They still have my center on something called a national disqualified list and I can’t get any other government contracts,” he said.
“My thing is, if you dismiss the case then you should also take my name off that nationally disqualified list,” he added.
Tarria and Choncey Bradford: “[We] tried to make sure all paperwork was dotted and crossed and it wasn’t enough for them.”
Tarria and Choncey Bradford are the owners of Little Aggies Learning Adventures, along SE 59th Street.
In an interview with the station, the couple said they have been targeted in the past for their administration of the food program.
“I tried to make sure all my paperwork was dotted and crossed and it wasnt enough for them,” said Tarria.
In June 2021, the couple said they were notified of their termination and disqualification from the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) by the Oklahoma State Department of Education Office of Child Nutrition Programs.
The letter cited a failure to correct “serious deficiencies” from an FY19 administrative review.
“We got audited and they said none of my paperwork matched and they wasnt there to train me, to show me…that why I’m off the program today,” said Tarria.
Her husband said they tried to appeal the process on their own.
“I drove it down there and handed it to the lady, and I told my wife, ‘I hope they dont lose this …well it [the paperwork] ain’t no where to be found today,” said Choncey.
In a show of support by the Oklahoma City Branch of the NAACP, the civil rights organization said the Oklahoma State Department of Education “intentionally, knowingly, and willfully closed Black-owned businesses based on imagined ‘deficiencies’ of a food program”.
“We feel as though they’ve been unfaily treated [and this is a ] lawless process taking place by the system,” said Branch President and Speaker Garland Pruitt.
“The kids need it, the city and the state need it …these programs exist for one reason: to take care of families,” he added.
In his complaint, Attorney Jim Johnson of Resolution Legal Group – said Ms. Darby, Mr. Miller and the Bradfords are being held to program standards that don’t exist in federal regulations or the state.
“If they don’t exist in the federal regulations, the state cannot implement it, especially the corrective action plan,” Johnson said.
“There is no such thing as a corrective action plan in Oklahoma. The agency, although required to do it, never did it, but they enforce it and that is what’s null and void and unenforceable under the law.”
“But it all seems to be when Black citizens are trying to participate in a state program, they get these comments about you shouldn’t, you can’t. And there’s never a legitimate reason why the agency is simply making this up over and over and over saying, ‘no, not you.'”
He said he’s preparing a new appeal that encompasses several complaints, including the following:
- That the Board lacks statutory authority to operate the CACFP and SFSP programs.
- AG. Op. 2023-3 says 70 OS Sec. 3-104 is insufficient to allow the Board to promulgate rules for the programs.
- Board rules for the SFSP are insufficient even if the Board had the power to operate the program.
- When the AG heard the cases, the AG and Board violated the Open Meeting Act by never providing notices and agendas.
- The Board and AG violated the APA (Admin. Procedures Act) by unlawfully interpreting board rules and federal regs in violation of 75 O.S. Sec. 302(D).
KFOR contacted the State Department of Education and the Office of the Attorney General about the complaints; however, the offices did not respond to the request for comment.
In the meantime, the group said they are often paying out of pocket to help with the expense of meeting needs in the community.
“[We have] the same kids but the difference is they’re not eating the quality food that they was eating [before],” said Choncey.
“I gotta feed the kids and I shouldn’t have to ask parents to pack their kids’ lunch [ who might not be able to] because we don’t have no funding to feed them,” added Tarria.
“I can’t let them kids starve…to see a kid not to eat, it’s not right, it’s not right …that’s what’s going on at Lil Aggies,” she added.