JEFFERSON CITY—Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services officials have blacklisted six nonprofits from a federal child nutrition program that paid them for distributing meals.
The largest recent claimant in Missouri’s Summer Food Service Program, Connie Bobo’s New Heights Community Resource Center, received more than $20.6 million in federal reimbursement from pandemic meal distributions and bought a $975,000 house and a $2 million commercial building before being barred from the program.
New Heights was added to the US Department of Agriculture-maintained National Disqualified List, which bars participation in the Child and Adult Care Food Program and is used by state regulators weighing applications to participate in the Summer Food Service Program. New Heights also was referred to the Missouri Attorney General’s Office and the USDA Office of Inspector General.
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DHSS officials also were able to document enough problems at five other organizations to add them to the National Disqualified List and end their participation in the program. Two were referred to federal investigators.
The National Disqualified List is only accessible to state regulators and organizations authorized to participate in the child nutrition programs. A USDA spokesperson would not identify organizations that have been referred to the list, citing federal privacy rules. But a DHSS spokeswoman provided the Post-Dispatch with the names of organizations the state referred:
• Sisters of Lavender Rose, founded in 2017 by Cymone McClellan, who listed a Florissant address at the time. It was paid more than $2.8 million in claims from the SFSP and CACFP since 2020. Officials said they disallowed nearly $400,000 in claims from the group and referred it to USDA investigators. McClellan, who also lists her name as Cymone O’Donnell, did not respond to requests for comment. Nor did she return a call left for her at the restaurant she started in Berkeley this summer, 314 Kitchen.
• Us Helping Us, purportedly started by an Elliot Dixon of Harrisonville. The group, which claimed some $380,000 in meal reimbursements through the programs, also listed a New York address and someone named Kizzy Murphy. No one could be reached for comment and it’s unclear if any of the people on its registration documents actually existed. DHSS officials say there’s no “definite evidence” the group actually distributed any meals. State officials blocked $17,188 in claims. Us Helping Us has been referred to federal investigators.
• Sisters of Annitrya, a St. Louis nonprofit founded by JoAnn Davis in 2019 that appeared to operate a summer camp. It claimed $1.4 million in food reimbursement since 2020. The state blocked almost $150,000 in reimbursements to the group. The nonprofit dissolved this year. Davis and the organization couldn’t be reached for comment.
• Dream It Big Inc.a California nonprofit incorporated in Missouri in October 2020. It lists Margretha Wells as president and Danielle Carr, with a St. Louis address on Dryden Avenue, as secretary. The group was paid $900,000 since 2020 for the food it claimed to distribute. The state flagged at least $61,000 in claims submitted by the group. It has since been dissolved and its organizers couldn’t be reached.
• Karah Academy of Dance and Performing Artsa Florissant dance studio founded by Chantaya King, claimed $1.6 million since the start of 2020 The state barred a little less than $74,000 in claims to the group.
King, who also operates Chantaya King Ministries, said Karah had been involved with the USDA programs for close to nine years and provides meals to kids in her dance studio. King said she was unfairly swept up in the state’s increased scrutiny of the program.
“We weren’t a fly-by-night pop-up,” King said.
She said some paperwork wasn’t available for state inspectors when they showed up for an unannounced review around Easter and that Karah’s past clean audits weren’t taken into account.
“All of our audits have been amazing, so how all of a sudden are our audits no longer good?” King said. “We did our best with what training they had given us.”
The six organizations barred from participation represent a tiny fraction of the roughly 900 groups that had been approved to participate in at least one of the two USDA programs.
The state’s administrative actions came under the CACFP, which requires more documentation that children received the meals than the summer food program.
The two programs pay as much as $4.56 per meal that participating nonprofits claim to distribute. During the pandemic, rules requiring kids to eat meals on site were waived and drive-thru-style distributions were allowed, often with little to no documentation that meals went to kids or out at all. On-site monitoring by regulators was extremely limited during the height of COVID-19.
Before the pandemic allowed nonprofits to offer grab-and-go meals, the state’s largest school districts were the largest summer sponsors, though they never billed more than $1 million annually. Pre-pandemic, only a handful of large organizations billed more than $1 million annually for the CACFP.
While some groups argue the waivers got meals into the community quickly while kids were home from school, federal prosecutors have said it left the programs vulnerable to fraud. Health department officials said they’d found more than $5 million in claims tied directly to the non-congregate waivers issued during the pandemic.
“Unfortunately, the waivers have provided some sponsors with the perfect forum to compromise program integrity and mismanage the programs,” DHSS officials said in a statement.