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[BN] Watchdog

What happened to food donated to CAO for kids' meals?

Children enrolled in Community Action Organization's after-school and summer programs are typically handed simple items for their meals: yogurt, cereal bars or granola bars. Then a staff member started ordering more substantial fare: whole chickens, bacon and vegetables, with onions and potatoes arriving in 50-pound bags.

The change prompted an internal audit at the anti-poverty agency. The findings: Hundreds of pounds of food, most of it donated, never reached the children. It either spoiled, was given away, went missing or was misused when eaten by employees or offered for fundraisers.

Children in a summer camp program were asked if they'd been served roasted chicken. No, they said. What about chicken fajita strips? No, they answered. Potatoes? No.

The 2016 audit, conducted by a CAO employee, focused on one staff member who ordered too much poultry and produce from the Food Bank of Western New York.

The employee was to be fired, but her job was saved by L. Nathan Hare, who for 17 years has led Community Action Organization of Western New York.

"I concluded that changing the involved staff person’s duties, changing our procedures, and other corrective actions were more appropriate," he said.

After a brief suspension without pay, she returned to her management post, though without the power to order food.

The audit quoted a kitchen worker who said food was going missing from refrigerators and freezers. Still, Hare disagreed that food went "missing."

"Some food was used in a manner that was inconsistent with our program policies and procedures and with the policies governing food purchases for our adolescent after-school program," he wrote to The Buffalo News.

Two people associated with the anti-poverty agency in 2016 said police were never notified. Hare did not dispute that.

The Food Bank, which sets strict conditions on where its food goes, says it, too, was not told of the matter.

"We are confident that what happened more than three years ago was handled appropriately," Hare said.

2016 CAO Food Audit (3) (Text)

The audit focused on La'Shea Green, who told The News she was CAO's education manager at the time. In July 2016, she was called into a meeting and asked about her food orders "line by line," according to the report completed by Brandi Haynes, CAO's emergency services director.

Haynes asked Green why she had ordered 50-pound bags of onions and potatoes just before the start of a summer camp for children, when no cooking is done for summer camp. "She said she just saw it and figured maybe they could use it and ordered it," Haynes wrote.

What happened to the vegetables? According to the report, Green told Haynes she gave them away to parents – though she knew doing so was against Food Bank rules.

Haynes asked Green how she managed to cook the 64 pounds of whole chickens she ordered for the Nurture after-school program at the Edward Saunders Community Center in Buffalo, with the limited kitchen available.

"She said maybe she took them home, cooked them and brought them to the site," Haynes reported. "I said removing food from the site is a direct violation of the Food Bank policies, and La'Shea said, yes, she knew that."

Haynes said in the audit that she talked to an employee at the Angola Community Center about the food Green was ordering for children there.

"He said that she orders things that he did not ask for and then someone is taking those items from the site," she wrote. "He said that La'Shea comes out to his site once or twice a month to conduct pop-up site visits and takes food with her when she leaves."

"We did have a situation," Green told The News when asked about the episode. She initially didn't want to talk about it, but when reached a second time she disputed the substance of the audit. Some of the food was lost when a freezer malfunctioned, she said, and some orders attributed to her were placed by another staff member.

Details in the report "were falsified, and not true, and made out to be bigger than they were," she added, explaining that some of the disputed food was used for special events.

Green, who also goes by La'Shea Green-Thomas, denied that she was suspended for two weeks without pay, as an internal document indicates. It was more like a week, she said.

Hare became involved when she briefly left the meeting with Haynes and others to complain to the CEO in his office, she explained. Her boss, Youth Services Director JoAnna Rozier-Johnson, talked to Hare on her behalf as well, Green said.

A Food Bank spokeswoman, Catherine Shick, said rules are in place to ensure that its food reaches the people who need it. The Food Bank, now known as FeedMore WNY, "had no prior knowledge of this internal audit nor any of its findings," she said.

The Nurture programs at the Angola Community Center and the Edward Saunders Community Center, where the excess orders were discovered, no longer get their food through FeedMore, she said. Their arrangements ended in January 2018 because they were no longer ordering the minimum monthly weight their agreements required. Green said a vendor named Cater Tots now services the programs.

CAO created procedures to prevent a similar episode, according to the minutes of a September 2016 meeting. There was to be more oversight, and only one person was to be allowed to place orders. Further, members of the Youth Services Department were to sign a statement that they understand no employee may remove food, including leftovers, from any site, and that employees could eat the food only during family-style meal times and after all students had their initial serving.

CAO has been roiled in recent months as a result of an internal power struggle. A majority of board members present at an October meeting voted to fire Hare after expressing, over many months, their dissatisfaction, especially with his handling of financial matters. "There is a loss of confidence and trust in your character," the directors told him in a termination letter.

Hare never left the job. CAO's attorney, mayoral confidant Adam W. Perry, determined that the meeting to fire Hare was conducted illegally and nullified the vote. The attorney later sent letters to six directors – four being Hare's critics – telling them they were no longer on the board. His law firm had determined they were improperly appointed.

With the dismissals, an auditing firm hired by board members to conduct a forensic audit halted its work. In March, when four dismissed directors tried to attend a CAO meeting to demand their posts, armed guards blocked the door.

Since then, the FBI and state Attorney General's Office have begun investigations into CAO matters and Rep. Brian K. Higgins, D-Buffalo, has called on the agency to be more transparent.

Against this backdrop, Hare disputes Buffalo News articles about CAO governance and operations. He did so again when asked about his agency's internal audit into its food purchases and the measures it imposed to ensure the food reaches eligible recipients.

"I find it very telling," Hare said in an email to the newspaper, "that your efforts to hurt and embarrass me and the CAO have hit difficult-to-reach new lows.

"Now you are going after food allocations?"

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