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Mekfira Hussein knows what it’s like to be hungry.
As a young girl, she and her Oromo family fled Ethiopia as refugees to neighboring Kenya. During that hectic time, she remembers sometimes going a full day without food.
“Growing up, you’ll eat maybe once a day, twice if you’re lucky,” Mekfira said. “Three times were the people who actually have the money.”
Mekfira doesn’t want children in Minnesota to experience what she went through. That’s why she runs Shamsia Hopes, which she said has been providing free meals to 5,000 children—mostly Oromo, Somali, and Hmong—every day since last fall. The 30-person nonprofit operates in four locations—two in St. Paul, one in Brooklyn Center, and one in Brooklyn Park—preparing hot meals like injera with meat and egg sauce, rice with chicken legs, and mixed vegetables for children. It also distributes free groceries to needy families.
Shamsia Hopes was operating on a $200,000 to $250,000 weekly budget provided by federal money. But last week, it all came to a halt and Mekfira shut her doors. She’s hoping the closure is temporary.
Last month, Mekfira learned the state was pausing all of its funding and denying its request to continue operating this summer. After her funding dried up on April 30, Mekfira spent the first week of May purchasing food for Shamsia Hopes with money she had left over. “It’s sad, but there’s really nothing we can do at this point,” she said.
The reason for the disruption is a messy legal dispute that doesn’t directly involve Shamsia Hopes. It’s between a St. Anthony-based nonprofit called Feeding Our Future and the Minnesota Department of Education. Feeding Our Future is what’s known as a “sponsor organization” to daycare and afterschool programs like Shamsia Hopes, working as an intermediary to perform administrative work and help them access federal money that is funneled through the state.
The vast majority of the money that Feeding Our Future distributes to nonprofits comes from two federal programs run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that feed children in need. The first is the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP): In 2019, the $3.7 billion national program fed 4.5 million children and 135,000 adults every day during the school year. The second is the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), which nationwide spent $481 million feeding 2.7 million children each day during the summer of 2019.
On March 31, the state Education Department announced it would pause funding from both federal programs to 26 nonprofits that Feeding Our Future works with, including Shamsia Hopes. Then, on April 29, the education department notified Feeding Our Future that it was rejecting applications for 184 new food sites for CACFP.
In the last week, the state walked back its position to pause funding and released the withheld federal money to the 26 nonprofits, including Shamsia Hopes. This gave Shamsia Hopes and others some relief to pay off expenses from previous weeks, but not enough to continue operating. Feeding Our Future is challenging the rejection of the new food sites, both in an administrative process, and through the courts. Its attorney, Rhyddid Watkins, argues that the state didn’t consider the merits of the applications. Feeding Our Future also is seeking a court order barring the state from freezing federal reimbursement money to existing food aid contracts.
Shamsia Hopes was among the 184 rejected applications, along with organizations including Action for East African People, Somali Action Alliance of Minnesota, and African Immigrants Community Services. Shamsia Hopes had been operating on summer food service money until April 30 and was hoping to expand to additional sites through the CACFP program.
The state alleges that Feeding Our Future is plagued by bad auditing and shoddy bookkeeping that doesn’t meet the regulatory requirements of both federal food programs.
Aimee Bock, executive director of Feeding Our Future, asserts the real problem is that leaders at the Education Department want those federal dollars to go to public school districts instead of nonprofits that work outside of school systems. Bock also alleges discrimination: Immigrants and refugees, she points out, lead roughly 90 percent of the nonprofits that work with Feeding Our Future, and they serve their communities with the funding. “The Department of Education has really launched an attack on the community as a whole regarding this food program,” Bock said.
Citing the ongoing court battle between the state and Feeding Our Future, Education Department spokesperson Ashleigh Norris did not comment specifically on the matter.
“The Minnesota Department of Education is committed to ensuring all children have access to meals, and ensuring sponsors and sites are able to operate and feed children while meeting all U.S. Department of Agriculture program regulations,” Norris said in a prepared statement.
State attempts to block Feeding Our Future’s future access to federal food aid
In 2020, Feeding Our Future accessed $40 million of federal money and distributed it to dozens of nonprofits, which collectively fed 175,000 children in Minnesota each day. The bureaucratic process that takes place to get the children fed works like this: Shamsia Hopes completes the required paperwork and forms to access federal money. It then submits this paperwork to Feeding Our Future. Feeding Our Future processes the forms and submits them to the Minnesota Department of Education, which in turn uses the forms to collect money from the federal government. This money then goes to Feeding Our Future, which distributes it to the nonprofits.
In all, Feeding Our Future works with 210 feeding sites where daycare organizations and afterschool programs like Shamsia Hopes operate. Sixty of those sites are currently not operating or close to closing because their federal summer food funding expired on April 30. The remaining 150 sites still operating are doing so through existing CACFP contracts set to expire in fall.
Feeding Our Future and its staff of 70 employees, including claims processors and program coordinators, is tasked with monitoring the nonprofits to make sure everything is up to code.
“We handle the barriers and burdens of administration,” Bock said. “We do check-in visits, we do all the training and we make sure that all the i’s are dotted and the t’s are crossed, so that when they’re accessing the federal funds, it’s nice and easy for them.”
Feeding Our Future’s legal battle with the state started last fall, when the organization sued the state for refusing to expand its network of nonprofits.
The state, however, alleges Feeding Our Future is mishandling its operations. In a March 31 letter to Bock, state Education Department Supervisor Emily Honer stated that Bock and Benjamin Stayberg, board president of Feeding Our Future, were “responsible for the serious deficiencies” at the organization.
Honer argued in the letter that Feeding Our Future didn’t properly complete its own auditing for 2019, didn’t employ enough staff to manage its finances, and grew by more than 35 percent in one year without properly accounting for this rapid growth. Honer also wrote that the state was investigating four complaints against Feeding Our Future, including one that alleged the nonprofit worked with an organization that wasn’t actually serving food.
Honer gave Feeding Our Future a month to “correct all of the serious deficiencies.” If it didn’t, the state would seek to terminate Feeding Our Future’s existing and future participation in CACFP. Horner also threatened that the Education Department would try to block Bock and Stayberg from future work with the federal program.
To cap off the letter, Honer wrote that until Feeding Our Future corrected its deficiencies, the state would withhold reimbursement of federal food aid money—the freeze on payments to those 26 organizations that was lifted in the past week.
The dispute with the state comes at a point when the COVID-19 pandemic has left a void for food distribution to children, Bock said. Nonprofits like Shamsia Hopes stepped in when schools shut down, which Bock said explains the “dramatic increase” of Feeding Our Future’s operations. The need only grew in the summer, she added, as grocery stores closed after damage during civil unrest following George Floyd’s murder.
Two weeks after the state paused its access to federal food aid, Feeding Our Future requested an emergency restraining order against the Education Department in the Ramsey County District Court. In the filing, Feeding Our Future declared the state’s refusal to reimburse the federal money “civil theft.” Feeding Our Future also alleged that the state started creating onerous new standards in future applications for federal food aid.
“What they’re going to do is create a new validation system, the likes of which they have never subjected anyone to in their many years of running the program,” said Watkins, a Denver-based attorney for Feeding Our Future who is licensed in Minnesota.
In an interview, Watkins acknowledged that the state got one of its allegations partly right: that Feeding Our Future hired an unlicensed independent auditor to do its 2019 audit. This audit was incomplete and was submitted after the deadline, the state alleged.
Watkins said the independent auditor did not submit Feeding Our Future’s 2019 audit to a federal clearinghouse, but did submit it to the state. Feeding Our Future has since hired another independent auditor and redid the 2019 audit. Bock said this new audit was completed and submitted to a federal clearinghouse on May 11.
Another point of contention: The state alleges that Feeding Our Future lost its nonprofit status for a period of time in 2020. Bock, however, said her organization never lost its status and that what really happened amounted to “a glitch” stemming from its tax filings with the Internal Revenue Service.
Currently, the Minnesota Secretary of State website lists Feeding Our Future’s nonprofit status as active and in good standing.
‘I think you’ve got a problem’
Feeding Our Future maintains the state Education Department needed to give the organization a chance to correct its problems before withholding federal money. Bock and Watkins both cite a 2002 memo from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, that says state agencies can withhold federal payments only when the sponsor organization “engages in conduct that poses an imminent threat to the health or safety of participants or the public.”
The same memo states that all sponsor organizations like Feeding Our Future must be “provided an opportunity to take corrective action” before a state can suspend its federal payments.
At the April court hearing, Ramsey County Judge John Guthmann expressed skepticism over whether the state could withhold federal payments and even told state attorneys, “you’ve put the cart before the horse.”
“I think you’ve got a problem,” he told state lawyers.
At the same time, Guthmann said Feeding Our Future seemed to have problems meeting “relatively rudimentary requirements” to access federal money. While it may be frustrating to see the Education Department take “punitive actions” for typos or inconsistencies in Feeding Our Future’s applications for federal money, he said, “the agency does have an obligation to demonstrate compliance with the law, or they’re going to get whacked by the USDA.” After the court hearing, the Education Department removed the “stop pay” notice for Feeding Our Future, according to a legal document filed by Honer, reversing the decision to withhold more than $20 million of CACFP funding from the nonprofits for March expenses.
Mekfira is hoping to reopen the doors and feed kids once again. She has temporarily laid off the 30 employees and independent contractors Shamsia Hopes works with.
“I told them, ‘Give it a couple of weeks, and maybe we’ll be back,’” Mekfira said. “Right now we have no job, so they’re praying.”
When she finds out if her application can get renewed is anyone’s guess. In the coming days or weeks, Guthmann is expected to rule on Feeding Our Future’s emergency restraining order. He will also rule on whether the state improperly delayed action on the 184 applications for CACFP that it eventually rejected.