Customers go to the Community Cafe in North Carolina, which is operated by the Rehab Connections Community, to buy cheap Southern staples. But former participants of the rehab program said the restaurant would use clients’ food stamps to buy the menu items. Credit: James Nix for Reveal

A rogue drug rehab program in North Carolina is being investigated for food stamp fraud, the latest fallout in an ongoing Reveal investigation into the program.

Recovery Connections Community, a two-year residential program near Asheville, required participants struggling with addiction to sign up for food stamps and turn them over to the directors of the program. But rather than purchasing food for clients, Recovery Connections’ leaders, Phillip and Jennifer Warren, used the food stamps to stock their own kitchen and purchase groceries for the program’s restaurant, Reveal found. Former clients said they frequently went hungry.

Both the Buncombe County and Johnston County Health and Human Services departments have launched investigations into the program, which could lead to criminal charges of the directors, said Cathy Young, an administrator with the USDA Food and Nutrition Service.

“Things like this just aren’t right,” Young said. “We are very interested in this case and are expecting answers very quickly.”

Reveal’s investigation found that Recovery Connections put participants to work 16 hours a day, for free, as untrained caregivers in adult care homes for elderly and disabled people while the rehab’s founders lived large and misused donations meant for the program. Former participants said the Warrens also used clients’ food stamps to stock their own pantry while clients were left with little to eat.

“We got $200 a month in food stamps, but yet we never had any food,” Cindy Gilbert, a former participant, told Reveal.

The Warrens frequently used clients’ food stamps to buy hot dogs, eggs and milk for the program’s restaurant, Community Cafe, which opened in 2017, according to former participants. The restaurant, staffed by unpaid cooks and servers from the rehab program, is a current headliner in the small town of Erwin’s restaurant week.

Jennifer Warren, who started Recovery Connections, has a long history of abusing the food stamp program. When she ran another rehab program, she was accused of using her clients’ food stamps to stock her own kitchen while there was “little food” for participants, according to records from a state investigation. She lost her counseling license for that and other ethical breaches in 2012. She also pleaded guilty in 2015 to financial assistance fraud for lying about her income and illegally collecting thousands of dollars’ worth of food stamps.

Young, with the USDA, said this is the second time in recent months that investigators in North Carolina have investigated Recovery Connections for potential food stamp fraud. She said the previous investigation found no evidence of abuse.

This time, Young said, she has instructed North Carolina investigators to conduct a “more robust” investigation and talk to current and former clients and request receipts from the rehab program.

At least eight North Carolina agencies have launched investigations into the abuses Reveal exposed at Recovery Connections.

Amy Julia Harris can be reached at, and Shoshana Walter can be reached at Follow them on Twitter:@amyjharris and @shoesh

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Amy Julia Harris is a reporter for Reveal, covering vulnerable communities. She and Reveal reporter Shoshana Walter exposed how courts across the country are sending defendants to rehabs that are little more than lucrative work camps for private industry. Their work was a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in national reporting and won a Sigma Delta Chi Award for investigative reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists. It also led to four government investigations, including two criminal probes and four federal class-action lawsuits alleging slavery and fraud.

Harris was a Livingston Award for Young Journalists finalist for her investigation into the lack of government oversight of religious-based day cares, which led to tragedies for children in Alabama and elsewhere. In a previous project for Reveal, she uncovered widespread squalor in a public housing complex in the San Francisco Bay Area and traced it back to mismanagement and fraud in the troubled public housing agency.

Before joining Reveal, Harris was an education reporter at The Charleston Gazette in West Virginia. She has also written for The Seattle Times, Half Moon Bay Review, and Campaigns and Elections Politics Magazine.

Shoshana Walter was a senior reporter and producer at Reveal, covering the criminal justice and child welfare systems. She's working on a book for Simon & Schuster about the failures of our country's addiction treatment system. At Reveal, she reported on exploitative drug rehab programs that require participants to work without pay, armed security guards, and sex abuse and trafficking in the marijuana industry. Her reporting has prompted new laws, numerous class-action lawsuits and government investigations. Her stories have been named finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, Selden Ring and National Magazine Awards. She has also been honored with the Livingston Award for National Reporting, the IRE medal, the Edward R. Murrow award, the Knight Award for Public Service, a Loeb Award and Sigma Delta Chi Award for investigative reporting. Her Reveal podcast, "American Rehab," was named one of the best podcasts of the year by The New Yorker and The Atlantic and prompted a congressional investigation.

Walter began her career as a police reporter for The Ledger in Lakeland, Florida, and previously covered violent crime and the politics of policing in Oakland, California, for The Bay Citizen. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, she has been a Dart Center Ochberg fellow for journalism and trauma at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim fellow in criminal justice journalism. She is a fellow with the Watchdog Writers Group at the University of Missouri School of Journalism and is based in Oakland, California.