In 2020, COVID-19 and the government’s response put many people out of work. Abdi Nur, a Somali refugee who lives in the Twin Cities, recalled the economic fallout within the Somali community.
“During COVID, it was a bad time because people in the Somali community lost their jobs,” Abdi explained. “Most of them were just home and struggling. It was a very tight economic situation.”
During a time of need, Abdi told Alpha News he noticed something unusual taking place in the year 2020. He said members of the Somali community were flaunting cash and luxury items on social media. Abdi’s suspicions climaxed when he saw a bride receiving a tray of gold during a wedding in the Twin Cities.
“All of a sudden, there was like a boom and people were buying very expensive homes and posting about those homes,” Abdi told Alpha News. “Then people started showing off expensive cars, money, equipment and other things on Facebook and Snapchat.”
Abdi looked into where all the money was coming from. He said those showing off expensive purchases were connected to Twin Cities nonprofit Feeding Our Future.
Feeding Our Future launched in 2016 and it served as a sponsor for meal sites meant to feed hungry children. The nonprofit participated in the Summer Food Service Program and the Child and Adult Care Food Program.
Shortly after schools shut down in 2020, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) loosened guidelines on meal sites to help kids.
The USDA allowed school meals to be bundled in multi-day packs and consumed off site. It also allowed restaurants to participate as meal sites or vendors. At the same time, to limit the spread of COVID, inspections of meal sites were reduced.
The Minnesota Department of Education oversees subsidized school meals as well as nonprofit groups including Feeding our Future.
According to a database maintained by MDE, Feeding Our Future had well over 300 authorized sites for the program. However, due to speedy growth and reimbursement claims, the nonprofit is now at the center of a federal investigation.
FBI search warrants into Feeding Our Future
In late January, the FBI raided 14 properties linked to the nonprofit. Search warrants say the nonprofit allegedly misspent millions of dollars meant to feed hungry children and used those funds to purchase “real estate, cars, and other luxury items.”
Court documents say among other businesses involved with Feeding Our Future, Safari Restaurant claimed to have served 5,000 children a day in July 2020.
According to the Minnesota Department of Education, in October of 2021, the nonprofit claimed to also have served more than 50,000 meals out of a small, one-story building in south Minneapolis. A search warrant says the FBI surveilled the outside and found minimal activity.
Joshua Borenstein works at a private school in St. Louis Park and knows firsthand how the meals program works. He noted that to serve thousands of meals a month requires a fair amount of real estate to accommodate multiple cars and staff members.
“Assuming the allegations are correct, it doesn’t add up to what my experience was with MDE. They were on top of things. They’re on their game. They watch what’s happening. They want to see everything and so the fact that they would have let something that big slip by, if that’s in fact what happened, would be very, very hard to believe based on how they run their shop,” said Borenstein.
Bank records show one Safari Restaurant business owner allegedly used federal dollars to purchase a million-dollar home in Plymouth. The search warrants also accuse the owners of using the federal child nutrition funds to purchase a multimillion-dollar office building in Minneapolis.
The investigation revealed Feeding Our Future Executive Director Aimee Bock allegedly received a large sum of money derived from federal child nutrition program funds. “Bock then deposited the check into a personal account held by her and her ex-husband,” a search warrant says.
“The people in there told us Amy knew everything step by step; she just wanted it to be hush hush,” Abdi said.
Alpha News reached out to Bock for comment but did not receive a response.
Department of Education takes action
In the summer of 2020, MDE observed speedy growth in the number of community sites sponsored by Feeding Our Future as well as an exponential increase in its meal reimbursement rate.
The amount of federal money going through the local nonprofit skyrocketed from $3.4 million in 2019 to $197.9 million in 2021.
The Department of Education moved to immediately terminate the nonprofit’s participation and issued a pay-stop but Feeding Our Future sued MDE.
“On April 1, 2021, a judge told MDE it did not have the authority to stop payment for Feeding Our Future and needed to continue paying. In April 2021, MDE also began working with the FBI,” explained MDE Commissioner Heather Mueller.
The Department of Education is not currently under investigation. The U.S. Attorney’s Office told Alpha News that it is “not providing additional comment” about a grand jury that is investigating the matter.
Nobody has been charged in the case. However, a man connected to Feeding Our Future was charged for passport fraud last month. According to the criminal complaint, Mohamed Jama Ismail’s company was a contracted food vendor with Feeding Our Future. He was arrested while attempting to leave the country.
Repercussions of speaking out
“If you are somebody who has a conscience or a person who has any dignity, they would not do something like this,” Abdi told Alpha News.
Earlier this year, Abdi went on a trip to Africa. He said once he got to Nairobi, he was attacked and pepper-sprayed for information he put online regarding the organization.
Despite backlash, Abdi wants people to know he remains focused on getting justice.
“In my country there was not a lot of respect for disabled persons or weak people … and so because of how I was welcomed and how I’ve been treated in the United States, it’s my duty to respect the welcome I got and to protect this country,” he said.
MDE shuts down additional nonprofits
The state of Minnesota has moved to suspend at least two other nonprofits including Partners in Nutrition and Youth Leadership Academy. Both organizations participated in the same Department of Education program.
Bock was a former employee at Partners in Nutrition until 2018. Partners in Nutrition has well over 500 authorized sites. The two nonprofits sponsor 83% of the state’s entire Child and Adult Care Food Program capacity, according to research from the Center of the American Experiment.
According to the MDE database, Partners in Nutrition received nearly $200 million in the last two years.
A third group called Youth Leadership Academy was also shut down by the state.
All three organizations took almost a combined half-billion dollars out of two federal programs.
Editor’s note: Alpha News will be releasing an extended interview Monday with the Center of the American Experiment’s Bill Glahn. Glahn has been closely following the case from the beginning and his research has been instrumental in helping Minnesotans understand this case. The interview will shed additional light on this story and help fill in the gaps. Check back at alphanews.org for the interview.