Open Mouths, Closed Hearts

The Feds created a program to feed the hungry. In Harris County, it became a program to feed the greedy.

It sounded like a healthy menu. Milk, wheat toast, bananas and warm oatmeal; milk, carrot sticks, green beans, rice and baked chicken; and milk and peanut butter sandwiches for an afternoon snack.

"Children must get nutritious, healthful meals if they are to grow into healthy, productive adults." So goes the motto of the Child and Adult Care Food Program funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Now close to two decades old, the little-known program was begun in order to get selections of food such as the one promised in the menu above, created by a Harris County day-care operator, into the mouths of poor children across America. Unfortunately, by the time the program reached Houston, con men and scam artists had learned that the laxly administered operation could easily be transformed from a method of providing federally funded food to the needy into a welfare program for the greedy. Recent investigations, in fact, have revealed that:

* In perhaps as many as half of the CACFP food programs set up in Harris County, menus detailing meals supposedly created and served in fact existed on paper only. No food was ever bought, no children were ever fed.

* Reimbursements for the phantom meals may have cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands, and perhaps even millions, of dollars.

* The Texas Department of Human Services, though informed of possible abuses in the system, conducted investigations that were so sloppy and ill-conceived that they may have made prosecuting many people involved in the food scams impossible.

* Even when investigations turned up possible malfeasance, people avoided prosecution because state officials didn't consider the rip-offs worth dealing with.

* And Harris County may well have been the center of food fraud for the state of Texas.

One of those accused of accepting funds for a fraudulent food operation is Sabrina Carter, a 29-year-old woman recently brought up before Judge George Godwin. Carter was in the Harris County Courthouse a few weeks back to arrange repayment of thousands of the dollars she received for, it's alleged, falsely claiming to feed 12 children two meals a day plus a snack. Court records indicate that for seven months in 1992, Carter received up to $3,000 a month for participating in the Child and Adult Care Food Program. Carter's was the first of 17 CACFP-related fraud cases winding their way through the Harris County court system, cases in which the alleged fraud totals close to $200,000. While it lasted, it was undoubtedly a gravy train, particularly in Carter's case: while drawing her CACFP check she was also receiving food stamps and Aid to Families with Dependent Children benefits.

Carter would probably still have her lucrative taxpayer-paid position if, two years ago, a concerned resident of Harris County hadn't written a letter to Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock that detailed widespread fraud in the obscure federally funded child nutrition program administered by the Texas Department of Human Services.

The writer (acting as cover for a DHS worker wishing to avoid the trouble whistleblowers often encounter) outlined allegations that eventually resulted in the 17 pending indictments, exposed Harris County as a hotbed of welfare-type fraud and forced DHS -- at the continual prodding of Bullock -- to correct its seemingly casual attitude toward ferreting fraud from CACFP. Although regulations for participating in CACFP have recently been made more strict, some state officials remain dismayed over what they see as foot-dragging and sloppy investigations by DHS and have called for state Senate hearings with subpoena power this summer to investigate the way food, and food funds, are handed out in Harris County.

The USDA program under fire was designed to provide healthful meals and snacks to children and adults in day-care facilities. The food program was supposed to ensure that children and adults in day-care receive healthful meals by reimbursing participating day-care operators for their meal costs and providing them with USDA commodity food. Traditionally, the program operates in child-care centers, after-school-care centers, family- and group-care homes and some adult day-care centers. Day-care providers are required to serve meals that meet federal nutrition guidelines, and they must offer free or reduced-price meals to eligible people. Meal plans must include at least one serving of milk, meat, vegetables, bread and fruit.

First authorized as a pilot project in 1975, the program began as a community outreach child-care food program. The reimbursement plan was designed to allow for neighborhood groups that would feed their surrounding communities. Congress made the program permanent in 1978, and in 1989 adult care was added, prompting the current name. Today, the program is administered at the federal level by the Food and Nutrition Service, an agency of the USDA. The money is allocated to the various states, which then administer it or turn over administration to USDA regional offices. In Texas, the program is administered by the state's Department of Human Services.

In December of last year, CACFP reports indicate, meals were served to 1.8 million children and 35,000 adults nationwide. In 1993, the nutrition program had a budget of $1.3 billion; for 1994, Congress appropriated $1.6 billion for use by CACFP. Texas received $102.4 million in 1993 and, at least as far as records are concerned, served 97,104,313 meals. In 1994, the state is slated to spend $122.8 million and anticipates serving 101,881,874 meals.

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