Nonprofits in Minnesota have fought desperately for funding during the COVID-19 pandemic to continue providing meals to growing numbers of children in need.
Now, many organization leaders say they are appalled by Thursday’s revelations that a St. Anthony nonprofit called Feeding Our Future is accused of defrauding the federal government of tens of millions of dollars intended to pay to provide thousands of meals to children in the Twin Cities and State.
Instead, investigators allege most of the money was spent on the personal expenses of Feeding Our Future employees and associates – from jewelry and a Porsche to lakeside homes in Prior Lake and a house of $1 million in Plymouth with an indoor basketball court. That’s according to more than 200 pages of U.S. District Court documents released Thursday, in which investigators detail an elaborate scheme that benefited at least two dozen people who transferred money between multiple companies to conceal the source. funds.
“It sickens me that this is happening – that they are so bold in taking money intended for children and spending it on themselves,” said Colleen Moriarty, executive director of Hunger Solutions Minnesota, an organization in statewide hunger relief nonprofit that has never worked with Feeding Our Future. “It’s certainly not representative of the 320+ food aisles or after-school program providers…who work hard every day. It’s shameful but it’s not an indication of the whole community. “
She fears the charges will deepen mistrust among policymakers and the public, making it harder for nonprofits to lobby the legislature for help.
Federal funding for meals and snacks in schools and after-school programs is sent to the Minnesota Department of Education for distribution to schools and programs.
“For many children, the meals they receive while in school and in care programs are the only meals they receive during the day,” the MDE said in a statement. “Ensuring children don’t go hungry has been a particular concern during the COVID-19 pandemic, as many families have faced economic uncertainties.
Due to the pandemic, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) waived some of the standard requirements of the Federal Child Nutrition Program, which allowed for-profit restaurants to participate and distribute food offsite outside of the programs. educational. As a result, the program was more vulnerable to fraud and abuse, MDE officials told federal investigators.
MDE has sounded the alarm over Feeding Our Future reporting a big increase in funding for meals. Feeding Our Future received $307,000 in federal child nutrition program funding in 2018. In 2021, the nonprofit was bringing in $197 million in federal funding that Feeding Our Future said would pay for meals for children at Burnsville, Minneapolis, Owatonna, Willmar and other cities, according to court documents.
Last year, the MDE announced it would reduce the number of nonprofits receiving funding, with Assistant Commissioner Daron Korte telling Pioneer Press at the time that he wanted to “ensure the integrity of the program” by because nonprofits were reporting a large number of meals and MDE lacked “the ability as an organization to verify all of these meal claims.” After being pushed back by the nonprofit community, MDE reconsidered its decision.
The increased surveillance may have harmed other nonprofits. Youthprise, a youth organization in Minneapolis, and Every Meal, a free lunch program in Roseville, teamed up to try to open more food sites and asked MDE for money, but never got back. Answer.
“Any time someone abuses that trust, it affects us all,” said Rob Williams, executive director of Every Meal, formerly Sheridan Story, which receives little government support and depends on donations for nearly all of its life. his income. “You wonder how that money could have been put to good use. … We all bent over backwards to try and get the most out of good food for the kids.”
Youthprise is receiving calls from child care centers and other sites sponsored by Feeding Our Future, looking for a new sponsor, said Marcus Pope, president of Youthprise. It would be up to his nonprofit organization to verify the legitimacy of the sites, and then to the MDE to approve the funding.
Red flags appear
MDE reported the “unexplained growth” to the USDA in 2020. MDE then turned down dozens of applications to the Feeding Our Future site in December 2020, the department said in a statement. In January 2021, MDE declared Feeding Our Future “seriously deficient” due to incomplete financial audits and an expired nonprofit status with the IRS and in the spring of 2021, MDE issued a restraining order. stop payment to suspend payments to the nonprofit.
Mekfira Hussein is the founder of Shamsia Hopes, one of dozens of sites sponsored by Feeding Our Future. It provides about 800 meals a day at 10 locations in Minneapolis and the northern suburbs of the metro. But when MDE suspended funding for Feeding Our Future, Hussein had to close for a month last year because it didn’t have enough money.
On Friday, she could not reach anyone from Feeding Our Future and only knew about the federal investigation through news reports. She said Feeding Our Future had not yet reimbursed her for December meals and now she had to look for a new sponsor. She worries that legitimate restaurant sites are now coming under scrutiny, especially organizations run by people of color.
“For those of us doing the work, it’s sad,” she said. “It’s like you’re taking food off the kids’ plates and taking it for yourself. It’s hard to believe. If that’s true…it’s heartbreaking.”
In April 2021, Ramsey County District Judge John Guthmann told MDE he had no authority to stop the payment and should continue paying Feeding Our Future. In May, the FBI launched its investigation. The IRS, Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, US Postal Inspection Service and US Marshals Service are helping.
Meanwhile, the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office, which regulates charities in the state, had been trying to obtain required tax forms and reports from Feeding Our Future since 2019. In October, the Attorney General’s Office retired Feeding Our Future as a registered charity in Minnesota.
No arrests or charges
According to court documents, at least 20 people benefited from the scheme. No one has yet been arrested or formally charged.
Rosemount’s Aimee Bock started Feeding Our Future in 2017. Bock previously worked at Partners in Quality Care in St. Paul, according to her LinkedIn profile.
Bock did not respond to multiple messages seeking comment, and no one answered the door to Bock’s Rosemount home on Friday. A Colorado-based attorney who represented Feeding Our Future in the MDE case, Rhyddid Watkins, did not respond to calls for comment. According to court documents, Bock obtained $310,000 in kickback funds and wrote a check for $600,000 to his partner through a shell company – money that funded a trip luxury in Las Vegas.
Several people the FBI is investigating have ties to Safari Restaurant and Event Center in Minneapolis and Empire Cuisine and Marketing in Shakopee. Safari Restaurant and its associates received more than $10 million in 2020 and 2021, almost none of which went to children’s meals, according to federal investigators. Messages left at the Safari restaurant were not returned on Friday. One of the owners bought a new van and a five-bedroom Plymouth home with an indoor basketball court with $1 million in federal meal funds, court documents show. At the Plymouth house on Friday, the blinds were drawn and no one answered the door.
One of the owners of Empire Cuisine and Market, which said it served more than 50,000 meals in November 2021, used the money to buy a Porsche and a house for Savage, court documents show. A number for Empire Cuisine no longer worked on Friday.
Call for a new control
“This was an appalling abuse of federal funding and public trust,” Governor Tim Walz’s press secretary Claire Lancaster said in response to the inquiry. She praised education officials “for catching and stopping this fraud.”
U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar, whose district includes Feeding Our Future’s headquarters, said the alleged fraud scheme, if true, is “reprehensible”.
“Anyone who participated in this scheme must be held accountable,” Omar said. “It is shameful that food insecure children have paid the price for the alleged actions of this non-profit organization.”
Republican state lawmakers are calling for new legislation and an audit to prevent widespread fraud schemes.
State Sen. Roger Chamberlain, a Republican from Lino Lakes who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said he appreciates the Department of Education’s diligence in catching the alleged fraud. Chamberlain worried about whether other agencies and state departments had enough support for oversight and called for “an audit of all COVID-related funds and expenditures to hold bad actors accountable.”
House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, called on Walz to “examine every state and federal dollar dispensed by his agencies.”
Editor Alex Chhith contributed to this report.