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Audit: Federal meal program for 40,000 seniors didn’t have sufficient oversight

ST. PAUL, Minn. — A state office tasked with administration of a federal meals program lacked sufficient oversight to ensure compliance with legal requirements, a new audit found.

The Office of the Legislative Auditor determined the Minnesota Board on Aging, which is responsible for allocating the funding, in some cases did not have proper documentation to support payments for meals in the Senior Nutrition Program, which supports people 60 and older with financial needs. The board and its local organization partners–the Area Agencies on Agencies–fell short of what is required for monitoring, too. 

As of last year, it hadn’t visited a provider site since at least 2017, the audit said. The team that put together the report addressed the Legislative Audit Commission at the state capitol on Wednesday. 

“We generally concluded that the Minnesota Board on Aging and Area Agencies on Aging did not have sufficient controls to ensure the program operated as intended,” Valentina Stone, the project manager for this audit, told lawmakers. 

More than 40,000 seniors were served 3.1 million meals in 2022. The funding largely comes from the federal government – 89% of it – with the remaining from the state’s general fund for a total of nearly $24 million last year.

The report detailed the hierarchy of program administration and found deficiencies at all levels. The Board on Aging establishes policies and oversees and provides funding to the Area Agencies on Aging, which manage the program at the local level. Then there are service providers who enroll participants and subcontractors who actually serve the meals. 

The audit determined service providers didn’t annually recertify seniors in the program, and both the board and local agencies did not review or approve contracts for the groups providing the food in local communities. 

Program evaluators noted that 30% of the funds the Board on Aging received last year were used for administrative costs, yet there was still minimal oversight and compliance. 

“That’s a question for the Board on Aging: what is being done with that money to oversee the programs? So that is our concern,” said Lori Leysen, deputy legislative auditor. 

Kari Benson, executive director for the board, said she doesn’t dispute the findings of the report and that the 25-member panel of governor appointees is working diligently to fix the problems identified. 

“In 2023 we have been making progress on shoring up our internal controls and achieving full compliance with federal and state requirements,” she explained. 

Separately, there’s another audit underway of the Minnesota Department of Education’s oversight of Feeding our Future, a nonprofit alleged to have stolen federal money intended to support meals for kids during the pandemic. Dozens face federal charges in the federal case and a few have pleaded guilty.  

The scope of this report focused on the systems of oversight and did not look at any potential fraud in the Senior Nutrition Program, though it noted insufficient internal controls could make the program vulnerable. 

But Benson said during the time of the audit and since it was complete, the board flagged two entities for potentially being linked to fraudulent activity. Officials later determined one of them was involved. 

She and other partners administering the program “acted quickly to identify those instances and stop payment and contracts in a timely manner.”

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