Taxpayer dollars meant to support children in Merced County welfare programs were awarded to a nonprofit that sells produce from a food truck, just a few years after county officials got rid of an oversight committee formed to keep an eye on the money.
The nonprofit, called Make Someone Happy, formed just months before it landed the $177,528 contract for a “mobile grocery service” from the county’s Human Services Agency in 2013. A year later, the Board of Supervisors approved a yearlong contract renewal for $113,410.
But the six-figure contract was paid using money that state officials say was allocated to provide services to foster children and children in group homes. A grocery truck selling produce to the public doesn’t qualify, they said.
A Merced Sun-Star investigation also found an oversight committee composed of Merced County senior level managers was formed to oversee use of the money, but it failed to meet regularly and eventually dissolved.
HSA director Ana Pagan defended the use of the state funds for the food truck, saying the program promotes healthy eating by providing fresh produce to children and families. She said the state money is meant to benefit all families, not just those in child welfare.
Make Someone Happy was the only nonprofit to bid for the contract. Several nonprofits told the Sun-Star they would have been interested in competing for the contract, but county officials failed to notify them about the bid.
The food truck was donated to the nonprofit and painted with the Make Someone Happy logos months before the Board of Supervisors approved the contract, according to public documents. A Sun-Star review of Pagan’s calendar indicates she met with the nonprofit’s co-founder, Nancy Young-Bergman, about the food truck at least once before the contract went out for public bid.
Young-Bergman said she couldn’t recall the meeting.
Questions have also arisen about the truck’s route. Officials said Make Someone Happy would bring fresh produce to low-income and rural areas of the county, but it’s making several stops at county buildings.
County creates DoWith program
Merced County in 2006 began participating in a state program to help at-risk children, those in foster care or group homes stay with their own families. The county called its program DoWith (Do Whatever It Takes at Home). It was created under Senate Bill 163 to offer services to youths.
The county recorded a surplus in the funding in 2010 and accumulated about $113,121 with the “savings.” The state Department of Social Services said the extra money must be reinvested into child welfare programs.
“It has to benefit children and families within the group home system,” said Sha Rena Chatman, a social service consultant with the state Department of Social Services, in a telephone interview. “It has to be children within this environment or the kids have to have some ties to the child welfare system.”
But county officials decided to instead use that money for the Make Someone Happy truck. Chatman said it appeared to be an inappropriate use of money. “Because the food truck is catered to everyone, it’s not targeting the children in care,” she said.
The Make Someone Happy truck wasn’t always funded by child welfare dollars. It was originally funded by CalFresh and CalWORKs before HSA officials paid for it using DoWith funds. Pagan said the Make Someone Happy truck no longer qualified for CalFresh because of a change in eligibility requirements.
Don Bergman, president of Make Someone Happy, said he’s unsure why the contract’s funding source changed, but said it doesn’t matter to him. “I don’t care where the funds come from because it’s been approved by the county attorney and the Board of Supervisors,” Bergman said.
County Executive Officer Jim Brown said his office signed off on using the DoWith savings because he was told the money isn’t only for child welfare programs. “It’s my understanding that these funds are flexible, to be used to create programs for families and children,” Brown said Friday.
The current balance of the DoWith savings is $550,000, according to HSA Deputy Director Michelle Roe.
Merced County’s plan to the state in 2009 promised to establish an oversight committee to look after the money. The team – composed of deputy directors from mental health, probation, HSA and the Merced County Office of Education – would meet quarterly to provide fiscal oversight, the plan said.
But top county officials say they’ve never heard of the committee, despite their departments being listed in HSA’s plan. “This is the first time I’ve ever heard of that and it doesn’t ring a bell,” said Chief Probation Officer Scott Ball.
Steve Gomes, county superintendent of schools, echoed a similar response. “None of us have served on a committee like that,” he said.
Pagan said the oversight committee was dissolved in 2010 because of a lack of participation. “We said we were going to do that and it didn’t work as well as we thought it did,” she said. “We write a plan, but the state doesn’t require us to have an oversight committee.”
Brown acknowledged changes to the plan should have been brought to the Board of Supervisors – but that did not happen.
Other nonprofits left out
Make Someone Happy was notified it won the original contract in a Sept. 16, 2013, letter. It was the only nonprofit to bid for the $177,528 contract.
Nine days later, the nonprofit’s leaders applied for a permit with the city of Merced to sell produce on Childs Avenue. In its application packet, Make Someone Happy included pictures of a fully-painted truck. The truck was donated by Delta Sierra Beverage in Modesto on May 13, 2013 – four months before the nonprofit won the contract.
Make Someone Happy leaders denied having prior knowledge of winning the bid, but they had a fully equipped truck before an official contract. And other nonprofit leaders said they didn’t get a shot at competing for it.
Bernadette Mello, executive director at the Merced County Food Bank, said her organization would’ve been interested in operating the mobile grocery truck. The truck could have served as an extension of what the food bank offers to rural communities, Mello said.
“Absolutely, I would have been interested, because I believe we could have provided an added service to our community, possibly at no charge,” Mello said. “I was never asked to be invited. We never got any information from the county. I never saw where it was advertised publicly.”
The Community Action Agency wasn’t notified either, said executive director Brenda Callahan-Johnson. “I would have liked to look at it though, because it’s a population we’re very familiar with,” she said. “I feel like we are known in those communities and it would have helped us reach them.”
The county normally contacts potential bidders before starting a bidding process, but county documents confirm no agencies were contacted in this case.
Website excludes 2 stops
Although it was lauded for bringing fresh produce to rural and underserved areas of the county, Make Someone Happy visits two Human Services Agency buildings, on Wardrobe Avenue and Highway 59, in Merced every Tuesday and Thursday. An internal flier advertises the visits to county employees, but the stops aren’t listed on the nonprofit’s website.
Bergman said it was his idea to bring the produce truck to county buildings. He said the objective was to reach clients that visit HSA each week. The stops were not advertised online, he said, because the nonprofit had problems updating its website.
Make Someone Happy charges its customers for produce, but Bergman said the organization is in a negative financial position at the moment. He declined to disclose the amount.
The nonprofit’s contract includes salaries for a driver, part-time staff and a project manager. Bergman calls it a “labor of love” and says he and wife Nancy Young-Bergman are not profiting from the venture.
“People say we are making so much money off this – hundreds of thousands of dollars – and it’s not true,” he said.
Need to Know
▪ Merced County used taxpayer dollars dedicated to child welfare on a nonprofit that sells fruit and vegetables.
▪ A fiscal oversight committee formed to oversee the funding was dissolved.
▪ The food truck nonprofit, formed months before the contract, was the only bidder. Other nonprofits weren’t notified.
▪ The nonprofit’s leaders met with county officials and outfitted the food truck before winning the contract.