Department of Education was battling two nonprofits for years before scandal broke

As early as October 2019 (if not before), MDE was concerned about the rapid growth of the St. Anthony-based Feeding Our Future.

Minnesota Department of Education/Facebook

(Center of the American Experiment) — The Jan. 20 FBI raids on Feeding Our Future was just the latest escalation in a war between the state agency and two networks of nonprofits operating food giveaways to low-income children. The state Department of Education (MDE) has been battling Feeding Our Future and the related nonprofit Partners in Nutrition (aka Partners in Quality Care) in and out of court going back at least as far as 2017.

MDE oversees locally two federal government free-food programs, the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) and the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP). Those two programs are meant to supplement the better-known school lunch program and provide meals to children at times they are not in class — after school and during summers, respectively.

In the wake of the FBI raids, MDE suspended both nonprofits from program participation. Both nonprofits deny any and all wrongdoing. Not one person has been arrested or charged.

These nonprofits aren’t charities in the usual sense of the word. They accept little or no donations from private individuals or entities. Both were created in recent years, and by the same people, for the sole purpose of helping other nonprofit and private entities to access these two government food programs. For a 10 percent cut, of course.

And they have been hugely successful. Each nonprofit boasts a network of hundreds of free-food distribution sites — including private schools, churches, childcare centers, apartment complexes, parks, and other locations throughout the state. Collectively, the nonprofits have accessed $460 million in government money over the years. Like a Silicon Valley startup, each year the nonprofits have operated, they have added another zero to their revenue column.

More than $300 million of that total was accessed in just 2021, as the federal government relaxed rules on what types of entities could participate in the programs and what types of locations could host distribution sites.

For years the nonprofits served as intermediaries. But more recently, both opened proprietary sites to distribute free food.

The struggle between the entities and the state can be viewed through a lawsuit filed by Feeding Our Future against the Department of Education in November 2020. Filings in the lawsuit reveal the tensions between the nonprofits’ efforts to grow quickly and access more and more government money and a state agency trying to manage program growth, maintain program integrity and doing both in the middle of a pandemic.

The lawsuit itself was withdrawn late last month, as Feeding Our Future pivoted to fight the federal investigations. The two parties were in state mediation at the time. Although active for only fifteen months, Feeding Our Future vs. Minnesota Department of Education tells quite a story.

As early as October 2019 (if not before), MDE was concerned about the rapid growth of the St. Anthony-based Feeding Our Future. In just its second year of operations, Feeding Our Future was already getting millions in government funding and MDE told them they needed to hire full-time, dedicated financial staff to handle the ever-growing piles of money.

Thereafter, at regular intervals, right up to the present day, MDE has taken steps to thwart, stymie, regulate, and terminate Feeding Our Future’s participation in the programs. For their part, Feeding Our Future claims to have always followed the rules, as written, and attributes state actions and inactions to racism and xenophobia.

In April 2020, MDE refused to accept applications from Feeding Our Future for eight new sites, seven of which were restaurants. One of these, Safari Restaurant, was later to be discussed extensively in the FBI search warrants. The agency later relented, under the threat of litigation.

In October 2020, MDE unilaterally terminated five Feeding Our Future sites from program participation. Along with Safari, S&S Catering (also mentioned in search warrants) was among the five shut down.

By November 2020, Feeding Our Future had 51 new site applications on file at MDE, sitting unprocessed. Included in that total were two sites run by the nonprofit Stigma Free, which is discussed in the FBI search warrants.

At this point the nonprofit filed its lawsuit. In the new lawsuit, the 2017 proceedings of an earlier lawsuit involving Partners in Nutrition are frequently mentioned.

In January 2021, MDE issued a Notice of Deficiency to Feeding Our Future. In late March, the agency issued a Notice of Proposed Termination and Disqualification for both the nonprofit, and its CEO, Aimee Bock. At that time MDE stopped payments to Feeding Our Future.

In April 2021, MDE took their concerns to the FBI, which triggered an investigation involving several federal agencies. In late April, MDE denied 144 site applications.

On June 25, MDE denied 15 additional applications. A few days later, a state judge found MDE in contempt for refusing to process site applications and fined the agency $47,000. The bulk of the sites were approved, payments resumed, and Feeding Our Future took in almost $200 million in government funding in calendar year 2021.

According to filings in the lawsuit, the rapid growth of the nonprofits can be attributed to signing up new sites to the programs. But the nonprofits also signed up existing sites to their network, competing with other nonprofit groups for market share.

At some later point in 2021, MDE banned distribution sites located at privately-owned restaurants, although restaurants can continue to serve as vendors to approved sites.

The FBI raids occurred on Jan. 20. By the end of the month, both Feeding Our Future and Partners in Nutrition were suspended from the programs. Not one person has been arrested or charged in the alleged scandal.

Although local media have gone silent on the story in recent days, we have not heard the last of Feeding Our Future and Partners in Nutrition.