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Unhappy holidays: FDACS withholds school lunch funds from vulnerable children

The department is holding up payments to a school lunch provider.

During the holidays, there is much to be thankful for.

Agricultural Commissioner Nikki Fried’s Office has been touting food drives across the state in service to those in need, a noble cause as the state suffers high unemployment as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But is there more than meets the eye?

Currently, FDACS and The Henry & Rilla White Foundation, a not-for-profit, are tied up in court over the agency’s reluctance to administer federal funds provided through the National School Lunch Program to at-risk youth in the Department of Juvenile Justice’s residential commitment programs operated by private providers under contract with the state.

The Henry & Rilla White Foundation has utilized the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and acted as the School Food Authority (SFA) for DJJ for over a decade in Florida, beginning under then-Commissioner Adam Putnam and continuing through the first two years of Fried’s term.

But now FDACS alleges that the foundation is illegally using the program because “for-profit” providers cannot participate in the NSLP. The logic doesn’t track, since the foundation is a “nonprofit,” DJJ facilities are state owned, DJJ schools are public schools by statute, and the Commissioner’s office has been signing off on compliance audits throughout the foundation’s contract.

NSLP is a federally assisted meal program operating in public and nonprofit private schools and residential child care institutions. It provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to children each school day. The program was established under the National School Lunch Act, signed by President Harry Truman in 1946.

For DJJ, the Henry & Rilla White Foundation, a non-profit, acts as the designated SFA. Those residential providers under contract with DJJ wishing to participate in the NSLP can apply. The Foundation then puts the food management contract out for competitive procurement on which anyone can bid to provide food services in accordance with NSLP standards.

Most providers themselves submit through the RFP process to provide such services. When providers that participate in this program then negotiate contracts with the state, the per diem for food is less because they offset it with federal NSLP dollars thus saving the taxpayers and state money while ensuring the kids in their care and custody are provided with healthy meals vital to their rehabilitation.

Fried’s office is calling foul, however, describing the practice as “double-dipping.”

Currently, they’ve held up over $1 million in funds that are to be allocated to these providers for the provision of these meals to kids in DJJ residential facilities, and additionally they’ve asked the foundation to repay over $13 million for past services approved by the prior administration. Despite evidence provided in an administrative hearing, FDACS alleges they did not know the Foundation was participating in this program; however, compliance reports and emails provided speak otherwise.

The case’s final determination, provided to Florida Politics, shows not only that Fried’s office knew about it, but in fact they found the foundation to be in full compliance. So much so, that despite Fried’s attempts to hold up these dollars to Florida’s at-risk youth, her own agency ruled against her in the administrative hearing process.  Fried is now appealing that order in the First District Court of Appeal, seeking to reverse the ruling.

Florida Juvenile Justice Association Executive Director Christian Minor, who represents many of the affected providers and served as an expert witness in the case, said Fried was playing politics.

“It is a shame that the only statewide elected Democrat chooses to play politics with the lives of at-risk kids in the middle of a pandemic,” he said. “Instead of accepting federal aid to provide these often-marginalized children with healthy food alternatives, she would rather withhold it and pass costs on to Florida taxpayers even after her own agency ruled against her.”

FDACS spokesperson Franco Ripple said the department does not comment on pending litigation. The Henry & Rilla White Foundation could not be reached for comment.

Final Determination – The Henry Willa White Foundation by Andrew Wilson on Scribd

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