The Crime Wave You Never Noticed: Lunch Ladies
When you think of large scale fraud, you tend to imagine some Wall Street dickwad in an expensive suit filling his offshore bank account to the brim with misappropriated funds. You don't picture a middle-aged woman in a hairnet, pocketing crumpled wads of cash handed to them by sweaty teens in exchange for something that legally can't be referred to as tater tots.
But it's time to reconsider the crimes of lunch ladies as more than spitting in your chili con carne or serving chicken fingers two years past the expiration date. Just in the last decade, lunch ladies have been responsible for hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars in large scale fraud. A popular lunch lady switcheroo is to rack up personal expenses on their company card (yes, lunch ladies get company cards; let's all just re-evaluate our career choices) and then juke the numbers of the school's lunch programs to hide the figure. This is how a Winnipeg lunch lady allegedly stole over $24,000 in school funds in under a year -- and how a Wisconsin school lunch admin definitely embezzled over $50,000. Or how Lenora Williams, director of food services for the Radford school system, managed to make over a quarter of a million dollars in private purchases, the school only figuring out the embezzlement after Williams died at the age of 61.
A much more lucrative lunch lady larceny is the cash con. Since most school cafeterias still work as a largely cash-based business, plenty of workers occasionally dip their hand in the till. But some lunch ladies have gone the whole hog (unlike their sloppy joes, which only contain only the taints), pocketing and underreporting massive amounts of money over long stretches of time. Like cafeteria sisters Joanne Pascarelli and Marie Wilson, who have been accused of stealing $478,588 in cash from the New Canaan school district in Connecticut. Or Brenda Watts, who allegedly spent up to two decades stealing $500 a day from the cafeteria registry, possibly getting away with well over a million dollars in lunch money. It was only after she had retired that the police started wondering how this woman who never earned more than $11 an hour could afford to live in a five-bedroom, 5,400 square-foot mansion.
So if their cons are so very simple, why does it take so long for anyone to catch on? The answer, sadly, is the poor, disenfranchised state of the school lunch program. With so many school cutbacks in the States, cafeteria workers are the first to feel the pinch, receiving fewer funds and oversight. Bad news for the hard workers, great news for the ones pissed off enough to resort to a life of cafeteria crime. Many of these lunch bandits were also in some minor position of authority, keeping the (already not doing great) cafeteria workers under their thumb by threatening firings or punishing dissenters by giving them dishwashing duties for months on end.
But let's also not forget that these lunch ladies have little to lose. What, getting caught means going to prison and having to spend the rest of their lives wearing a hairnet and shoveling gruel onto the trays of disaffected youths inside an ugly privatized state-building?
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