In 2018, suspicion had grown about a Memphis child care organization that was supposed to be distributing food to low-income children who were out of school for the summer — food paid for by taxpayer funds in a program overseen in Tennessee by the state’s Department of Human Services.

Red Robin’s Academy of Learning had participated in the Summer Food Service Program before. But its paperwork claiming the number of children who had been fed raised red flags with the Tennessee Comptroller, who for six years has uncovered evidence of fraud among some of the nonprofits that participated in food distribution. The Comptroller also concluded that the fraud had been enabled, in part, by a long history of lax oversight of the $80 million program by the state’s Department of Human Services.

The Memphis Police Department was enlisted, installing motion-activated cameras at an apartment complex, a Baptist church and a community garden — all sites that Red Robin’s said they planned to dole out meals and snacks. Police captured video surveillance of activity at the sites for nearly two weeks then compared the subsequent paperwork Robin Mayweather, the nonprofit’s executive director, used to document the amount of food the group had given away.

At the Kimball Cabana apartment complex, Red Robin’s Academy of Learning claimed to have served 2,165 lunches and 1,762 snacks over a period of 19 days in July 2018. The organization asked for $10,130.87 in reimbursements.

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The video footage police obtained showed not a single child was served a meal during any of the 19 days at the apartment complex.

At Greater Middle Baptist Church, the group claimed to have served 547 meals and 547 snacks over a period of 19 days that same month, at a cost of $2,654. The footage showed not a single child was served there, either.

At Grow Memphis, a community garden, the group claimed it served 2,911 lunches to hungry kids over a 29-day period. Video captured showed far fewer children were served while the organization billed the state for $6,754 in food children never got.

The organization was one of two nonprofits highlighted in audits released by the Tennessee Comptroller this week for making fraudulent claims to seek public funds for serving phantom meals to nonexistent children. Giving Youth A Chance, a Memphis church-affiliated youth program, was also singled out for claiming it distributed thousands of meals and snacks in July to children at four apartment complexes when surveillance video installed by Memphis police showed it was serving far less.

Neither Red Robin’s executive director Mayweather or Roseman Randle, executive director of Giving Youth A Chance, responded to a request for comment on Wednesday.

Giving Youth a Chance is one of two Memphis nonprofits found to have defrauded state government. (Source: Tennessee Comptroller)
Giving Youth a Chance is one of two Memphis nonprofits found to have defrauded state government. (Source: Tennessee Comptroller)

“Our office has repeatedly reported on weaknesses within the Summer Food Service Program,” Comptroller Justin Wilson said in releasing the reports. “It is imperative that the Tennessee Department of Human Services continue to ensure that all participants complete and accurate documentation for meal reimbursement claims.”

The audits are the latest in a series conducted over a six-year period detailing rampant fraud and abuse in the federal food subsidy programs overseen by the Tennessee Department of Human Services. In addition to the Summer Food Service Program, fraud has been documented in the Child and Adult Food Care Program which offers meals in afterschool programs and other venues to low-income kids and vulnerable adults.

Pre-pandemic, the programs were intended to provide meals to 80,000 low-income Tennessee children during the school year and about 42,000 children each day during summer months. While many operators — typically nonprofit organizations and churches — have delivered on their promises to feed children, others have engaged in fraud, pocketing funds without providing meals to kids while escaping notice by DHS officials.

As a result of the pandemic, the summer program, which typically ends when school begins, is being extended until the end of 2020.

The programs, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, give state officials the authority to reimburse community organizations for the meals they provide low-income children. The food providers set up feeding sites at summer camps, playgrounds, parks, community centers and apartment complexes to ensure kids get adequate nutrition while out of school.

DHS’ lax oversight of the $80 million food program has been highlighted by lawmakers, in multiple audits by the state comptroller and ongoing investigations by The Tennessean, all of which found unscrupulous state contractors pocketed millions of dollars intended for children in Tennessee, where 1 in 4 children are at risk for hunger.