(The Center Square) – The Oklahoma State Department of Education has found that millions of dollars meant to feed hungry children during the pandemic were instead diverted to various institutions for personal or private use.

The investigation shows that $1.6 million in fraudulent claims were submitted by various organizations in their child and adult day care center food service programs.

"Our team in Child Nutrition reviews and verifies reimbursement claims as part of their routine work," Carrie Burkhart, executive director of communications for Oklahoma State Department of Education, told The Center Square. "In these particular instances, reviewers noticed red flags in the documentation submitted with the claim."

Burkhart gave an example of how easy it is for fraudulent orders to slip through the cracks.

"For example, online grocery orders were placed," Burkhart said. "An email with the food items listed is then received by the entity placing the order. The organization then cancels the order but uses the original order email which was submitted as proof of food being purchased per federal requirements. The original email has the order number and the verbiage 'in-process' rather than 'picked up'.

Child Nutrition reviewers would then call the store to verify the order and find a discrepancy, she said.

“We found that those orders were canceled, which means that the food was never purchased by the entity, but meals that needed this order's food to meet program requirements were claimed and reimbursed," she said.

To prevent similar situations from happening in the future, Burkhart said reviews were conducted, fiscal action assessed and recovery of funds occurred and continues to be in process, including through the utilization of formal legal collection procedures. In addition, the OSDE has successfully terminated the organizations from participating in future nutrition programs.

Some of the additional site regulations and accountability measures the OSDE has put in place include VCA (Financially Viable and have Administrative Capability and Program Accountability) approval, validating all high-risk claims, site approval and agreements - requiring OSDE approval to add a feeding program to the site and a written site agreement, training, frequent reviews and identity checks.