Head of TN child nutrition program quits after reports of questionable spending

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The director of an $80 million food program for impoverished children has resigned following a story in The Tennessean reporting at least $1.8 million in questionable spending last year by contractors.

Carmen Gentry tells the newspaper (http://tnne.ws/1MXpHIm ) she was threatened with demotion or worse after the story revealed problems that she blames on Tennessee Department of Human Services leadership.

After her resignation, Gentry sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Services outlining her concerns. Chief among them is that Tennessee’s program that subcontracts with hundreds of agencies to feed 180,000 children during the school year and 42,000 children during the summer is mostly paper-based. She also complained that there is not enough staff to effectively administer the program and the staff lacks training.

DHS spokeswoman Stephanie Jarnagin disputed Gentry’s claims. She said the department recently made applications available online and is exploring other upgrades.

With regard to staff, she said in an email, “There are over 40 positions dedicated to working on the food programs in the Department. These positions are program staff, finance and administration staff, external program review staff and internal audit staff.”

She also listed several trainings that Gentry and her staff have attended.

Food and Nutrition Services acknowledged they have received Gentry’s letter and say it is under review.

Problems with the Tennessee program were uncovered by the state Comptroller’s office during an audit of the Child and Adult Care Food Program as well as a summer food program for children. In operating the programs in Tennessee, DHS distributes federal dollars to contractors providing snacks and meals to day care centers, mobile lunch buses, emergency shelters and recreational programs.

The audit found millions in questionable expenditures from the contractors. It concluded “DHS management had not ensured that critical controls and effective practices were in place and operating as needed,” and a lack of oversight “threatens the integrity of the programs.”

Oversight of the program has been a problem not just in Tennessee, but across the country, stretching back decades. In 1999, the federal General Accounting Office found that opportunities for waste, fraud and abuse were woven into the design of the program.