Food fraud: Oklahoma Dept. of Education says several adult, child care centers pocketed money meant to feed wards during pandemic

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OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – The State Department of Education uncovered $1.6 million of federal money, meant to feed hungry Oklahoma children during the pandemic, was pocketed by various care centers for private or personal use.

“These are funds that need to be given to children,” said Oklahoma State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister. “And if these schemes would’ve been completed, it would’ve taken the food out of the mouths of children.”

As schools across Oklahoma shut down during the pandemic, many kids relied on schools, organizations, and non-profits to get their meals.

Superintendent Hofmeister said in some cases, care centers would fake an online grocery order to get the cash.

“That was used to submit a large order for food, by this organization, and then that was canceled on the backside,” said Hofmeister. “Yet, the original paperwork with the order was submitted for reimbursement.”

She said the care centers also forged documents to change the amount of money spent on food using software like Adobe Reader.

“Someone could falsify and change invoices that make it appear that they have received a higher amount of milk for example, from a dairy that they use to supply milk for thousands of their members in their childcare or organization,” said Hofmeister.

In 2020, the OSDE said participation in its summer food service soared by more than 700%. Between May and August alone, 13 million meals were served.

The superintendent said the fraudulent activity was only happening in child and adult day care centers.

“We are pleased in this case we did not see any schools that we part of the fraud we discovered,” she said.

Now the state is working to uncover additional schemes, by using regulations and accountability measures introduced during Hofmeister’s time in August.

Those include:

  • VCA checklist – OSDE requires that all applicants be Financially Viable and have Administrative Capability and Program Accountability (VCA). Applicants must submit financial information and demonstrate capacity for policies and procedures to operate programs according to regulations. 
  • Validations for high-risk claims – Through a rubric to determine high-risk claims, OSDE requires entities to submit records to verify irregular claims. This is required in addition to the review process, typically in a non-review year. 
  • Site approvals – Any entity must receive OSDE approval to add a feeding site to its program to ensure capacity and viability. 
  • Site agreements – If a sponsor contracts with a site to serve meals, OSDE requires a written site agreement to avert procedural difficulties. 
  • Training – OSDE requires entities to attend trainings if they receive a review deemed seriously deficient. For Fiscal Year 2022, all entities reapplying for OSDE programs must attend a training prior to approval. 
  • Frequent reviews for high-risk claims – OSDE reviews entities more often if previous review results are irregular. Entities deemed seriously deficient are reviewed again in the next fiscal year to ensure all areas are fully and permanently corrected. 
  • Identity checks – OSDE requires additional documentation to confirm identity of applicants or authorized representatives of program entities. 

The superintendent said other states are taking notice and opening investigations of their own.

“Oklahoma is actually on the leading edge with this kind of investigation and determining where this fraud has occurred,” she said. “Other states had not seen this, so now they are also looking a little bit deeper and differently at some of these claims of online vendors.”

Now, the state is working on steps to detect fraud earlier.

“Where fraud exists we will uncover it. This is demonstrating that these steps that we’ve put in place over the last six years that were new for Oklahoma are working,” said Superintendent Hofmeister.

News 4 has requested a list of the care centers involved in the fraudulent activity, through the Freedom of Information Act.

We’re told it could be several days to receive the list because of the on-going investigations.

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