Democratic Leaders Join Call for Hearing on Food Program Failures

The Tennessean, by Anita Wadhwani, Aug. 3, 2015 -- State Democratic leaders have joined the call for Department of Human Services Commissioner Raquel Hatter to testify about failures in an $80 million food program for impoverished children.

In a letter sent to the Republican chairmen of the Joint Government Operations Committee on Monday, four Democratic lawmakers asked that Hatter and Deputy Commissioner Petrina Jones-Jesz be required to appear at an Aug. 19 hearing to address criticisms of the program.

The request follows a critical audit by the Tennessee Comptroller in March and investigative reports by The Tennessean this month about the failures in oversight of a food program responsible for providing meals and snacks to impoverished children. The program distributes federal dollars to private agencies that, in turn, provide meals and snacks to 42,000 children each day during the summer and 180,000 during the school year at day cares, recreational programs and mobile lunch buses. It also feeds approximately 1,200 adults each year.The Tennessean reported that a lack of oversight by DHS has cost taxpayers millions, with some nonprofit agency staff paying themselves tens of thousands of dollars in bonuses, spending money on perks such as meals and hotel movies, and billing for twice the amount of food they were authorized to distribute, among other problems.

Two days after The Tennessean's investigative report, the director of the food programs resigned. Former food program director Carmen Gentry then sent a four-page letter to federal regulators with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Services outlining her concerns about the program, which, she said, put children in Tennessee at risk for hunger because of a lack of leadership at DHS.Among her chief concerns was that the program lacked enough staff to properly oversee hundreds of agencies distributing food and that the $80 million program is almost entirely paper-based, with staff hand-counting forms and reviewing applications, despite the availability of federal dollars to create a computerized system.House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart, Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris and Rep. John Ray Clemmons signed the letter.

On Friday, Tennessee Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, a Republican, said he would also be seeking testimony from Hatter and Comptroller Justin Wilson, while Democratic Sen. Jeff Yarbro called on Gov. Bill Haslam to "show leadership" to get to the bottom of the food program failures.

In their letter to Republican chairmen Mike Bell and Jeremy Faison, the Democrats said they are motivated by "sincere concern about the safety and welfare of children across the state of Tennessee. ... If any of these allegations are true, to any extent, the state has failed the children who rely on us the most."

In a news release, Rep. John Ray Clemmons said, "I am certainly not going to sit on my hands and hope for leadership out of this Republican administration while kids across Tennessee go hungry. ... I, for one, intend to ask the hard questions and get to the bottom of these deeply troubling allegations.

DHS spokeswoman Stephanie Jarnagin did not respond to an emailed request for comment from Hatter. Faison and Bell could not be reached.