Summer food program meals tossed in the trash

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - Confusion over the rules of a nearly 50-year-old federal entitlement program led a summer camp to unnecessarily throw away dozens of tax-supported school lunches.

Acting on a tip, the WMC Action News 5 Investigators visually documented the discarded meals in the garbage at Hope Apostolic Church, located at 5645 Spring Lake Road. Pastor Ronnie Hayse said Alicia Whetstone was leasing his church's gym for the last two months to hold her Sizzlin Summer Camp. He said she ordered the meals for her campers. "It was causing a trash pile up here. Animals were getting in it," Hayse said. "I just had some ladies in our church that were concerned about why they were throwing all this food away."

Whetstone's camp is an authorized recipient of the USDA's Summer Food Service Program (SFSP). Launched as a pilot program in 1968 then authorized in its current form in 1975, the federal entitlement provides grants to states in order to provide meals to low-income children when school's not in session. In Shelby County, the meals are distributed by the Shelby County Schools Nutrition Services to 458 approved groups, centers and camps. Stephanie Jarnagin, spokesperson for the Tennessee Department of Human Services (DHS), said authorized participants are supposed to order the meals through DHS based on the number of enrolled children. Jarnagin said the department then reimburses the group $2.19 per breakfast or $3.83 per lunch or supper. Any meals left-over are not reimbursed, she said.

Whetstone said the meals her staff threw away were meals that were served to children, but those children did not want or open them. She claimed the SFSP policy prohibited her staff from keeping those meals. "We serve the lunches to the child. If the child does not want the lunch, then we're supposed to throw it away," Whetstone said. When we asked her to confirm those meals included those that were never opened, she answered, "absolutely."

"Once a meal has been served, it cannot be served again," Jarnagin said. "Programs can't be reimbursed twice for the same meal. (However) if the extra meal has not been served, it can be saved and served the next day."

Whetstone said her staff does refrigerate extra meals that were not served to campers during a particular meal. We were allowed to photograph them in the fridge Hayse set aside for her camp per her lease with the church. But she insisted she could not keep unused meals that were placed on tables before her campers. "It's unfortunate. I hate to throw away perfectly good food, but we're not allowed to give it to other people."

That's not exactly accurate, according to the USDA's rules governing the food program.

According to the rules, program participants have options for handling left-over and extra meals:

* TRANSFERRING MEALS. Recipients may transfer extra or unsealed meals to another approved site with a shortage.

* SECONDS. "When all children in attendance at the site have received one meal, sponsors may serve and claim reimbursement for second servings of complete meals of up to two percent of the number of first meals served to children," said USDA spokesperson Amanda D. Heitkamp.

"If the (sponsor) is not seeking reimbursement for the meal, they can give it to parents, children, or other community members to bring home," Jarnagin added.

* DONATIONS. Qualified sites may donate unused meals to homeless shelters, food pantries, food banks or other non-profit agencies.

"If people are hungry, why are we throwing away food?" asked Estella Mayhue-Greer, president of the Mid-South Food Bank. She blamed the waste of food at the summer camp on the USDA's failure to adequately explain the policy of the half-century old program. "It's an antiquated policy," she said. "If the children take it home and it's eaten by another sibling, what's the problem with that?"

According to Mayhue-Greer and Andrew Bell, the food bank's communications manager, 51,000 children in Shelby County are identified as "food insecure." That means they suffer from reduced food intake, reduced quality of food, or regular disruptions of their eating patterns, as defined by the USDA. Bell said the food bank serves more than 2,700 children a week with over 100,000 meals.

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