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By Bill Wichert November 20, 2011

Nearly 160,000 students in New Jersey’s school lunch program are ineligible, state senator says

The school board president and two other individuals connected to the Elizabeth school district have been accused of illegally signing up their children for the federal school lunch program, but according to state Sen. Michael Doherty, that’s just the "tip of the iceberg."

Standing before members of the East Jersey Tea Party, Doherty suggested the state auditor had determined that nearly 160,000 students across the state were receiving free or reduced-price meals when they shouldn’t be.

"We have 428,000 kids in the state of New Jersey signed up for free or reduced-price lunch. Our state auditor checked the records, and you know what he found?" Doherty (R-Warren) said during the Nov. 3 appearance. "He found, out of 428,000, when he checked the records, 37 percent of the students that were signed up were actually ineligible."

After checking the auditor’s report, PolitiFact New Jersey found that Doherty's math was a bit overwrought.

Here's why.

Each year, according to state and federal officials, schools are required by the federal government to audit three percent of the total number of the school lunch applications they receive. They are instructed to focus on the ones that are within $100 of the household income that qualifies children for a free or reduced-cost lunch. The logic, state and federal officials say, is that since there are 428,000 kids in the program across New Jersey, you can't check them all. So concentrate on the ones that seem close to the income limit.

In 2010 the state auditor looked at the three percent analyzed by each school and found that 37 percent did not actually qualify for the program, which translated to 2,723 erroneous applications.

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There was never an attempt to analyze the entire 428,000 so there is no way to know what the real number of improper applications actually is.

"I stand by the accuracy of my statement," Doherty told us.

But the state auditor, Stephen Eells did consider what the overall number of erroneous applications might be.

In his report, Eells projected that 58,000 of the 428,000 students may be ineligible, if the results of the analysis conducted by his office are reflective of all approved applications.

Our ruling

Doherty claimed the state auditor found that 37 percent of 428,000 students in the school lunch program were ineligible, but the 37 percent does not apply to the 428,000.

The 37 percent applies to a limited number of questionable applications subject to verification, which translates to about 2,723 ineligible applications. The students behind those applications were not among the 428,000 students cited by Doherty.

We rate his statement False. The abuses in the school lunch program are bad enough as they are without any fuzzy math, senator.

To comment on this ruling, go to

Our Sources

Michael Doherty speaks to East Jersey Tea Party, posted on YouTube on Nov. 10, 2011

PolitiFact New Jersey, State Sen. Michael Doherty says school districts receive more state aid for every student who receives a subsidized lunch, Aug. 25, 2011

New Jersey Office of the State Auditor, Audit of the Department of Agriculture, June 27, 2011

Interviews with Stephen Eells, New Jersey State Auditor, Nov. 14, 2011

U.S. Department of Agriculture, Eligibility Manual for School Meals, October 2011

Phone and email interviews with Lynne Richmond, New Jersey Department of Agriculture, Nov. 14, 2011

Interview with state Sen. Michael Doherty, Nov. 15, 2011

The Star-Ledger, Elizabeth school officials' kids don't pay full meal costs, records show, Aug. 21, 2011

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Nearly 160,000 students in New Jersey’s school lunch program are ineligible, state senator says

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