Federally funded nutrition programs in the wake of a pandemic and a scandal
How one Minnesota organization has continued to serve meals in the midst of crisis
As attention swirls around Feeding Our Future and the alleged fraud of $250 million in Covid-19 relief funds, one Minnesota organization has continued to serve thousands of meals to young people throughout the state.
Christa DeBoer, Nutrition Director at Youthprise, spoke with MPR News about their nutrition program and how the pandemic — and now a national scandal — have changed the landscape of federally funded nutrition programs.
Hear the full conversation by using the audio player above or reading the transcript below. It has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Walk us through the paperwork required for the programs you run.
The USDA programs’ reporting is pretty extensive. That's actually why you find a lot of smaller organizations don't get access to these programs because it is so cumbersome. Our sites have to submit two pieces of documentation every day: a meal count report and a delivery sheet that says this is what was delivered for our food today by this vendor.
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But as a sponsor, we're really looking at five to seven documents for every single document or file that our sites submit. That's tracking what time the food came, the types of the food that came, the meal costs expected for that site, looking at the menu and the ingredients for that menu to make sure it meets the standards. So it's pretty cumbersome and there's a lot of tracking happening.
How did things change during the pandemic?
Traditionally, you have to be at the site within a specific meal window to get the food and during the pandemic that shifted. You no longer had to be on site to eat or to get the meals. A young person, their family, or their guardian could show up on their behalf to get the food for them for an entire week potentially.
The other aspect is the eligibility. Traditionally, this program allows sites within the school and census data. Now, during the pandemic, the eligibility was widened to be outside of those spaces now that we're looking at a non-congregate environment.
So because the kids aren't eating on site and because the need of traveling and everything was so limited, you want to try to get to the homes or to the places where most of the community was going to be so you could provide those meals
From your perspective, did the loosening of restrictions to get funding and resources out more quickly during the pandemic good for programs that didn't break the law?
I would say it was really great for the communities we serve. The accessibility of the program increased. We saw so many more families needing these programs. The pandemic didn't just increase hunger. There were a lot of other aspects that hit families.
What should people keep in their minds as they look towards solutions?
Pre-pandemic, these operations were already very strict. As we come out of that and we go back into what was standard operation pre-pandemic, we're gonna go right back into those same guidelines and yes, they may increase some stipulations or some aspects of auditing, paperwork, or background checks — anything like that.
But now that we've been hurt in this way and these federal programs have been hurt in this way, I hope that we don't see a hindrance on still serving the community.