Feds pushed wealthy Tennessee county to gorge on lunch money


By Chris Butler | Tennessee Watchdog

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Just because you live in Tennessee’s wealthiest county doesn’t mean you don’t know how to mooch off the taxpayers.

As Tennessee Watchdog reported, the poverty rate in Nashville’s public school system is about 72 percent, most definitely not wealthy.

As of this coming school year, all students, regardless of income, are eligible for free breakfasts and lunches through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Community Eligibility Program.

Mike Looney

Go a few miles south to Williamson County and you might find at least a few similar circumstances, but through a different USDA program. Forbes identified Williamson as one of America’s wealthiest areas, and many famous, established country music singers live there.

But the way Williamson County School System officials took advantage of federal taxpayers in 2012 is arguably worse, considering they possibly used poor, underprivileged students as props for more money.

Whatever money for poor kids remained — $650,000 — was used to renovate, replace, or buy new school equipment that year.

That amount was more than double what the school system received from the feds for a child nutrition program the previous school year.

Just take the words of Superintendent Mike Looney at a 2012 school board meeting, captured on a YouTube video, which Tennessee Watchdog stumbled upon.

“We have added a significant number of students that are eating breakfasts at our schools,” Looney said in the video, saying the school system added 15,000 additional breakfast meals.

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“Its significant to note that the reimbursement rate from the federal government is higher than the rate that we charge for free and reduced lunch students, obviously for free, but for reduced. So, the more students we have that are of poverty that eat breakfast the more money we get recouped from the federal government, so we’re actually making more money by serving more meals.”

According to Looney, federal law states the school system may not have an excessive amount of money left over — therefore they have to spend it on something.

USDA officials did not immediately offer comment Thursday.

According to the most recent U.S. Census, only 5.8 percent of the county’s residents live in poverty.

ENCOURAGEMENT: It appears the feds are encouraging wealthy counties to get public school students on the free lunch program.

Looney and school system spokeswoman Carol Birdsong were out of the office this week and unavailable for comment on the current status of the program.

Why are Looney’s words, recorded in 2012, relevant today?

Well, as previously reported, the federal government also has an incentive system to get as many Nashville Metro School System students as possible on federal assistance.

In other words, the more free meals served, the more likely the program will continue.

The Williamson County School System’s website, meanwhile, seemed to report the school’s cafeteria fund took in $2.6 million in federal money for fiscal 2013, $2.8 million for fiscal 2014 and will take in $3 million for fiscal 2015.

Contact Christopher Butler at chris@tennesseewatchdog.org or follow him and submit story ideas on his official Facebook page.

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