When COVID hit, churches became the largest USDA child nutrition providers in Missouri

ST. LOUIS—The two churches quickly became the largest program sponsors in Missouri when the pandemic caused the U.S. Department of Agriculture to relax rules on child feeding programs.

Financial data from the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services show Life360 Community Services, affiliated with Life360 Church in Springfield, and New Hope Fellowship, a High Ridge church, have grown to become the two largest contributors to Child and Adult Care Foods. . program.

Both are affiliated with the Springfield-based Assemblies of God, one of the fastest growing Christian denominations.

U.S. Department of Agriculture headquarters

Jamie L. Whitten, Federal Building, US Department of Agriculture in Washington, DC USDA photo by Ken Hammond.

Ken Hammond, USDA

Life360 was one of the largest program participants before the pandemic, but the take-and-go options that allow sponsors to deliver one week’s worth of food at a time at major drive-thru events has led to massive refund requests for the organization. The Child and Adult Care Meal Program and Summer Meal Service Program reimburse sponsoring organizations up to $4.50 per meal requested by sponsors to cover meal, staff, and distribution costs.

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Reverend Ted Cederblom, president of the Life360 Church, said in an interview that the church nonprofit focuses on small, rural Missouri towns. About four years ago, it began partnering with school districts to distribute food to students in classrooms, starting with the Laclede County School District.

Father Ted Cederblom

Rev. Ted Cederblom, pastor of Life360 Springfield Church, Mo.

“There was a need and people kept asking,” Cederblom said. “We have people whose hearts love these small rural towns.”

By 2019, it was billing approximately $1.5 million per year through the program, which is the fifth largest program sponsor in the state. The largest sponsor at the time was St. Louis-based United 4 Children.

But when take-away began in 2020, Life360 quickly became the largest organization in terms of revenue in the state, using its rural distribution network as food delivery locations.

It requested $14.4 million in 2021 and $15.5 million in 2020 as part of the Child and Adult Care meal program and its sister program, the Summer Meal Service Program. From 2020 to mid-2022, as the take-away continues, Life360 requested $38.25 million in food reimbursement under the two programs.

Cederblom, yes, Life360 made money when the program increased during take-and-go. At the end of 2020, the organization had $3.2 million in cash, according to its federal audit.

Cederblom said he spent it on program expenses by the end of next year, according to his federal audit; the main ones were food, where costs increased by nearly 50%, and salaries, which increased by $2 million. No issues were found in the 2021 audit. Corrected the only finding in the 2020 audit by drafting written cash management procedures.

Unlike some other organizations, the nonprofit arm of the church continues to participate in the program as the state has once again required that children eat their meals onsite. Cederblom said school district partnerships protect against program abuse because Life360 and the state can use school attendance records to keep reimbursement requests in sync.

“It was our decision, we will work with public schools,” Cederblom said. “It protects us, it’s a boon for that school and those kids.”

‘More needed’

The New Hope Fellowship church, with campuses in High Ridge and Hillsboro, began its cooking program in 2017 as a sponsor of Life360. A year later he became his own sponsor.

“Where the churches are, we had the heart to help them,” Linda Braswell, New Hope’s cooking show director, said in an interview. “We wanted the churches to be the face of the program, not the New Hope Fellowship.”

Linda Braswell

Linda Braswell, cooking program director for the High Ridge New Hope Fellowship, Mo.

New Hope prepared meals for partner churches that distributed meals and assumed the administrative burden of the program, documenting expenses and applying for food reimbursement from the government.

He has partnered with all denominations and nonprofits, but his relationships within the rapidly growing network of Assemblies of God have allowed him to build a sizable network of participating sites and become a full-time job rather than volunteer work for Braswell.

By the time COVID-19 stopped eating with the congregation, the church was giving children about 1,500 hot meals a week. New Hope then contacted the Ferguson-Florissant School District, which was seeking a sponsor to prepare and distribute meals. It has quickly grown from serving 1,500 children a week to 30,000 children a week by trucking food to its shared facilities in Springfield, Kansas City, Cape Girardeau, and Sedalia.

New Hope has claimed a total of approximately $22.5 million in reimbursement under the USDA’s two child feeding programs during the take-and-go time period from 2020 to mid-2022 – third-ranked Missouri sponsors at the time.

“There was a lot more need to be exposed to COVID,” Braswell said.

New Hope still serves approximately 25,000 children a month, and the Grandview School District in Dittmer and North St. It partners with school districts, including the Francois County School District.

“We realized that we could still do that when the exemptions ended,” he said.

The Church was initially cited for not properly documenting some payroll expenses in the 2020 federal audit, but it fixed those issues in the 2021 audit. His audit noted that it needed more accounting staff and that the audit firm needed to prepare financial statements, but the 2021 review found no problems with the church’s handling of the federal money that financed the program.

Braswell said he’s heard some stories about other sponsors, but he and New Hope are trying to keep up with the regulations as they grow.

“It’s easier to tell the truth than to explain it in an audit,” Braswell said. “I have no doubt that some are making a profit.”


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