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Jan 10

No. 59: Can Meals for Lab Staff Be Charged to Grant?

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Can Meals for Lab Staff Be Charged to Grant?

Reader Question: Our lab meetings are long, and my staff gets hungry — am I allowed to charge meals back to my grant?

Expert Comments:

Before considering whether it’s allowable, you might want to ask yourself if it’s the wisest use of your grant funds. Expenditures are public information, so even if it’s permissible, public perception of how federal money is used could come into play.

The basic question is whether you can directly tie the food to the purpose of your grant. One way of doing so would be to link it to training sessions you may be giving as part of your protocol. If you require your staff to take the training and you serve lunch during the sessions, it may be a legitimate grant expense. Also, if you invite others in for the training (to provide information about your research and how your guests can use that information for other purposes), it's an allowable expense. But even then, it's important to remember public perception.

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One of my clients was working with Homeland Security grants. In that case, food was an allowable expense. My client was providing a training program and ended up spending somewhere in the neighborhood of $70,000 for food over the course of four months.

The program officer said the expense was permitted but indicated that spending that much was not necessarily a wise use of the funds. If the media were to report on it, important details could be left out. On the other hand, the public might not see the $70,000 as exorbitant if all the facts were known — that possibly 2,500 people were trained over those four months, and they were served breakfast and lunch each day.

Refer to your program guidance to determine what expenses are allowable. Obviously, if you budgeted for the food, then it was approved as part of your project. If it wasn't in your stated budget, you'll have to add it and seek approval from the funding institution’s program officer.

This trend toward greater transparency, from my understanding, is only going to increase, not only in the area of research funding but with all federally funded projects.

Expert comments by Debbie DiVirgilio, grant consultant, DiVirgilio & Associates, Elkton, Md.

Comments (2)
Certified Fraud Examiner
written by M782427, January 10, 2011
Dear Investigators:

Just because it may be allowed by the grant does not necessitate that the employer does not have to report such expenditures on the employees W-2, pursuant to IRS regs. Also watch out for 1099 requirements!

You certainly do not want to have a major IRS investigation on your hands. Too many times I see grant managers 'ignore' IRS regs, as well as internal control issues under A-133 audit requirements within the 'Yellow Book'

A word of warning to the WISE, check with your CPA, who should be an expert in the area.

Respectfully submitted
Principal, Thomas R. Blackburn Grants Consultancy.
written by Thomas Blackburn, January 18, 2011
You didn't say what the source of your grant was. If it is an NSF grant, you are specifically prohibited by the following language from the current NSF grant proposal guide: "No NSF funds may be spent on meals or coffee breaks for intramural meetings of an organization or any of its components, including, but not limited to, laboratories, departments and centers."

And I certainly second the prior comment: If you included meals in your proposal budget, it's already approved. (The fact that you are asking about it suggests that you didn't.) If not, you will need your program officer's written permission to change your budget.

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