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A state judge has issued a rare and stinging rebuke of a state government agency, finding the Minnesota Department of Education in contempt of court in an ongoing dispute with a nonprofit that helps daycare and afterschool programs access federal money to feed children.
The order, issued last week by Ramsey County Judge John Guthmann, docked the Education Department for taking too long to act on 143 applications to a federal food program and fined the state more than $47,000 in penalties and attorney fees.
The ruling comes as a victory of sorts for St. Anthony-based Feeding Our Future, though Rhyddid Watkins, an attorney for the nonprofit, lamented the bigger problem: that the state’s lack of actions are still preventing 65,000 children around the state from being fed free meals. The vast majority of them are immigrants and refugees.
“We’re talking about a couple hundred thousand dollars a day of federal food, sitting out there not being taken,” Watkins said. “For what? For why? We have no idea. They won’t tell us why.”
Ashleigh Norris, a spokesperson for the Education Department, did not comment on the contempt order, saying instead that “we are not able to speak to active litigation.”
‘A clear violation’
The federal money in question comes from two programs: the Child and Adult Care Food Program and the Summer Food Service Program, which together spend more than $4 billion per year feeding more than seven million children across the nation.
Public school districts typically accessed both programs to feed children. School shutdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic, however, created an opening for more independent afterschool programs and daycare organizations to access the food programs.
During the fall of 2020, for example, the number of applications for federal food aid from Minnesota nonprofits through Feeding Our Future grew by 35 percent. Feeding Our Future works as an intermediary for the nonprofits by applying for federal food aid for them through the Education Department, which processes and approves or disapproves the applications.
Last November, roughly two dozen nonprofits collectively applied for 144 sites to distribute food through the Food Program. To this day, the Education Department has only taken action on one of those applications. Last April, the state rejected the rest of the applications on the basis of finding “serious deficiencies” with Feeding Our Future, alleging an improper internal audit and the organization’s lack of accounting for its rapid growth—allegations that the nonprofit denied and fought in court.
After more legal battle, the state eventually dropped its “serious deficiencies” findings against Feeding Our Future. Watkins argues that by dropping the findings, the state denied the 143 applications without reason. Feeding Our Future is currently appealing the state’s decision to reject the applications administratively, a process that is still ongoing.
In his order finding the Education Department in contempt, Guthmann wrote that the state’s actions violated a court order in December to process the applications in a “reasonably prompt” timeframe. The state’s decision to deny the applications in late April wasn’t quick enough, he added.
“[The Education Department] cannot divide the application process into pieces and take as long as it wishes at every stage of the process except the last,” Guthmann wrote. “In the context of a finite school year and an even shorter summer school season, such a practice can only be viewed as a clear violation of both this Court’s order and applicable federal regulations.”
A rare order
Watkins called the contempt order against the Education Department “a huge deal” and “an extremely rare occurrence.”
“If it was an individual person doing it, you could see prison time,” he said. “You typically see this in family matters, if you don’t pay your alimony or child support and you lie to the judge about it.”
Mehmet Konar-Steenberg, an administrative law attorney and a professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law who is not a part of the lawsuit, agreed that judges finding state agencies in contempt is rare.
“When a court issues a civil contempt order, what it’s saying is, ‘I ordered you to do something, you are capable of doing it, and you chose not to without good reason,’” Konar-Steenberg said.
The Education Department now has until July 2 to make a written decision explaining whether it will continue to deny or overturn the denial of the 143 applications, according to Watkins.
Education Department spokesperson Norris said in a written statement that the agency is “experiencing an unprecedented amount of site applications” for federal food aid since the pandemic began and that it’s “working as quickly as possible” to review the applications while ensuring that all federal regulations are met.
Norris wrote that more than 1,000 sites in Minnesota are accessing the program and currently operating, providing more than 1 million meals each day. More than 1,000 more sites will be added by early July, Norris added.
Supporters protest at Education Department
But for the several afterschool and daycare programs seeking federal money, the current number of operating food sites is not enough. Earlier this week, more than 100 people rallied in front of the Education Department’s headquarters to support Feeding Our Future.
During the lunch hour rally, the crowd marched to the building’s front entrance and chanted “feed our kids.”
Among the attendees was Mekfira Hussein, who operates the afterschool program Shamsia Hopes. Until recently, Shamsia Hopes operated in four locations and served 5,000 people each day through the federal programs. But three of Shamsia’s applications to continue under the program were a part of the 143 rejected applications. Now, Mekfira’s nonprofit currently operates in one location in Brooklyn Center, where it serves roughly 2,000 meals a day.
Most of the kids Shamsia feeds are Oromo and served culturally appropriate food like mandazi for breakfast and chicken and rice for lunch, she said.
Demand for Shamsia food is high right now, Mekfira said, and she usually runs out of meals around noon or 1pm. People still come by later seeking meals, and Mekfira has no choice but to turn them away.
“Some are sad, some are angry,” she said. “I hate to turn people down. It gets really personal.”