Troubled DHS children’s food program gets legislators’ attention

State Senate Finance Committee members Friday questioned Human Services Commissioner Raquel Hatter on problems plaguing an $80 million food program for poor children that could potentially cost taxpayers millions in fraud and misspending, according to The Tennessean.

Hatter testified that she took responsibility for oversight of the program, which feeds 80,000 Tennessee children during the school year and 42,000 children each day during summer months, but noted its problems long predated her taking office in 2011.

But Tennessee Comptroller Justin Wilson told lawmakers that auditors have found that problems with the program have only worsened in recent years.

The hearing was convened by lawmakers after a critical audit by the comptroller’s office and investigative reports by The Tennessean showed waste, fraud and abuse in a program designed to distribute snacks and meals to children living in poverty. Some 500,000 children in the state are at risk for food insecurity, creating a need that Tennessee officials, like those in many other states, have not yet been able to meet.

Hatter noted that there are weaknesses in the design of the program, which is funded purely with federal dollars. Other states have had similar challenges with fraud and waste in their food programs, she said. The program is due to be re-authorized by Congress, and Hatter said state officials will take the opportunity to weigh in on design changes.

She emphasized that the problems have not hindered getting meals to children.

“Children in Tennessee are still being fed,” she said. “It’s important to note that.”

In an annual audit of all state agencies, the comptroller found 65 deficiencies. Twenty-one of them were within the Department of Human Services — and 14 of those were in the food program.

…”My sense is we are looking for a solution we should have had before now,” said (Senate Majority Leader Mark) Norris, who urged Hatter to redouble her efforts to improve the program and report back on her progress.

Sen. Doug Overbey, a Maryville Republican, asked Hatter to keep a focus on both continuing to feed children and improving oversight.

“Let’s also focus on maintaining the integrity of the program, because taxpayers expect nothing less,” he said. “I hope this hearing will be a motivating factor.”