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It’s lunch hour at the youth room in the basement of Franklin Library in south Minneapolis.
Four kids munch on prepackaged chicken pasta salad, applesauce, and lettuce with dressing. They sip serving-size containers of milk.
Youth Services Librarian Gwen Wasmund facilitates the meals. Wasmund has a total of 10 lunch meals and 10 snack meals to serve to the kids gathered here this weekday afternoon.
For the activity of the day, she helps one of the kids, 9-year-old Nazsire Anderson, draw on a clear sheet of plastic that they’ll heat up and turn into a glass-like ornament. Anderson takes bites of his meal in between preparing this Shrinky Dink.
“You know what would be good? Mac and cheese!” Nazsire says.
“Everybody loves mac and cheese,” Wasmund tells him.
Upstairs, Nazsire’s aunt, 20-year-old Cherie Irby, is working at the computer lab on her homework assignments from Metropolitan State University. She’s taking classes in social sciences, and says she’s thinking about becoming a public school teacher. Irby is also her nephew’s full-time caregiver, and the two live down the street from the library.
To make ends meet, Irby relies on $600 of monthly cash assistance, plus food through the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.
“If you know how to live cheaply, you can pull it off,” she said of her modest means.
The free chicken salad Anderson is eating downstairs helps make this lifestyle work. Irby says she tries to bring her nephew to the library on days like this as often as she can.
“I appreciate the program because it gives us something to do and gets us out of the house,” Irby says. “And it’s a free meal, so we try to take advantage, as much as we can.”
This gathering in the basement of Franklin Library seems like the furthest thing from a brouhaha or controversy. But the free meals here offer an example of a subject that dominated headlines in Minnesota for the first half of the year: how meals are served under the federal Child Nutrition Programs.
Many children across the state eat free meals this way through the Child Nutrition Programs, though the exact number fed in Minnesota is difficult to quantify. Nationwide, two of these large federal food aid programs—the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) and the Summer Food Service Program—fed an estimated 7.2 million children in 2019.
Many other people, however, learned about the program for the first time this past winter. That’s when allegations emerged that a group of individuals, nonprofits, and food vendors had defrauded the federal government out of tens of millions of dollars. According to FBI search warrant affidavits unsealed in January, these nonprofits and food vendors purported to be running their own meal programs through the Child Nutrition Programs.
The Summer Food Service Program is one of two Child Nutrition Programs that constituted part of the scheme, according to the FBI.
Feeding Our Future, a St. Anthony–based nonprofit, stands at the center of the FBI’s ongoing investigation. Feeding Our Future has denied the allegations, and federal authorities have yet to charge any of the individuals named in the warrants with fraudulent use of the food programs.
A hallmark of the Feeding Our Future investigation has been the seemingly unbelievable meal claims made by food sites that worked with the nonprofit. One of the most glaring examples, according to federal authorities, is Safari Restaurant, which operates out of a one-story storefront on Lake Street. Feeding Our Future reported in paperwork to the state that the restaurant was serving 5,000 kids a day through the federal program in the summer of 2020.
Similarly, the nonprofit reported that a food site in a modest, 2,800 square-foot, one-story commercial building in south Minneapolis served meals to 60,000 kids in one month.
Many of the food sites working with Feeding Our Future and using Child Nutrition Program money popped up overnight as feeding sites during the pandemic. In spring of 2020, public schools, daycare centers, and afterschool programs shut down and couldn’t feed children free breakfast, lunch, and snack meals, as they have for decades.
Some of these new food sites were existing businesses, religious organizations, and nonprofits. These included an afterschool program at a Minneapolis mosque, several established restaurants, and a resource hub for East African immigrants. Many of the individuals associated in the scandal, including Feeding Our Future Executive Director Aimee Bock, maintained in media appearances that they were, in fact, complying with Child Nutrition Program rules to serve their meals.
“Feeding Our Future does not commit fraud, does not allow fraud, does not condone fraud, and most certainly does not actively participate in fraud,” Bock told Sahan Journal earlier this year.
After reporting on the scandal for months, I wanted to see what Child Nutrition Program meal sites actually look like.
Sponsoring food sites is ‘a lot of work’
To be clear, the food sites Sahan Journal visited for this story have absolutely nothing to do with the food fraud allegations. These are places that are doing the detailed work of providing meals to low-income children, while following the numerous stringent and tedious rules of compliance with the program—which are many.
The Franklin Library is one of 45 such community sites across the Twin Cities metro that are working with the local nonprofit Youthprise to serve disadvantaged children with free meals this summer. From June 13 to June 30, Youthprise served 21,000 snacks, lunches, and suppers between the 45 sites—all through the federal Summer Food Service Program.
Youthprise also sponsors meals during the school year through the Child and Adult Care Food Program.
Youthprise’s food sites vary in size. Small ones, like Franklin Library, serve five to 10 lunch meals on a given day. Medium-sized sites, like Arlington Hills Community Center in St. Paul’s East Side, serve 30 to 40 lunches and suppers on a given day. Larger sites, like area YMCAs, can serve as many as 150 lunches and suppers on a given day.
Roughly 85 percent of the children receiving federally-funded Youthprise meals are children of color.
None of the 45 food sites would be able to serve food through the program without a sponsor like Youthprise, said Christa DeBoer, the nonprofit’s nutrition program director. That’s because the food sites are too small to meet the financial and administrative burden of meeting the federal program’s guidelines, she said.
Youthprise has been around since 2010 and employs 36 people. Acting as a sponsor means the nonprofit takes on the administrative work to claim the meals from the government and pass them onto sites like Franklin Library.
This is similar to the role Feeding Our Future reported to be filling, when it sponsored 210 food sites for 175,000 kids a day in summer 2021—including the Safari Restaurant site.
Youthprise first got involved in the Child Nutrition Programs in 2014, at the encouragement of a partnership then called Hunger-Free Minnesota. The coalition identified two programs—Summer Food Service Program and the Child and Adult Care Food Program—as potential ways to address hunger in the state.
“They asked us to do this and we looked at them like they were crazy,” said Marcus Pope, president of Youthprise, “Because it was a lot of work. And when you looked at some of the financial projections, you would have to get to a certain scale to be able to make it work financially to just break even.”
Youthprise initially started out sponsoring 10 sites. The program became successful, and the number of sites quickly doubled, tripled, and quadrupled.
Two ounces of chicken pasta salad, half a cup of salad
Nothing seems simple about serving lunches at Franklin Library—even though there are fewer than a dozen of them.
Before each meal day, Wasmund must fill out a “Food Production Record.” This form lists the number of meals she plans to serve, the meal ingredients, and how they meet the federal meal patterns.
Wasmund shows me these worksheets halfway into serving lunches at Franklin Library. Wasmund keeps them in a binder, next to another binder of documents provided by Youthprise, which outline all of the regulations she must follow to properly serve the meals.
Youthprise contracts with vendors CKC Good Food and Lutheran Social Services to prepare the meals, which must all fit strict meal patterns outlined by the federal government.
The amount of each chicken pasta salad served, for example, must meet the minimum of 2 ounces alloted to fill the meal’s protein requirement. The salad for each meal measures half a cup, and the applesauce measures a quarter cup. Together, they equal the three-quarters of a cup set aside for fruit and vegetables in each meal.
Meals can be served either hot or cold, depending on the food menus, and the food preparation process is regulated, too. For example, Wasmund hauls a toaster oven to the room for the Shrinky Dink art. This device can’t be used for heating up the food, Colleen Woodford of Youthprise points out to me. Doing so would break federal rules and regulations.
Woodford works as Youthprise’s nutrition program manager and frequently monitors the meal sites that the nonprofit services. She guides me through the visit at Franklin Library and explains a few of the many facets that govern the program.
Franklin Library serves 10 lunch meals plus 10 snacks a day, three days a week through the summer, using the summer food program. I watch as Wasmund serves lunches between 1:30 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. That service wraps up at 2:30 p.m. on the dot.
“If food is served out of time, it’s considered out of compliance, and Youthprise must pick up the bill,” Woodford explains.
A phone app produced by local nonprofit Hunger Impact Partners allows families seeking meals to enter their address and find the closest locations that are serving free food.
“Our sites have to serve within the allotted windows of time so that if a community member were to come in and look for those meals, they’re serving them at the same time that’s listed on the website,” Woodford says.
After she hands out a meal, Wasmund punches a button on her handheld tally tracker. This is to make sure she doesn’t forget the total number of meal fulfillments when she reports it at the end of her shift. (She uses a separate clicker to note when kids come back for seconds.)
By comparison, federal authorities cast aspersions about the meal tracking at some of the meal sites named in the federal search warrants. The feds cited one contractor that worked with Safari and Feeding Our Future that claimed to be serving precisely 2,000 meals a day at each of five different locations across the state of Minnesota—throughout the entire month of July 2021.
Take the applesauce home; trash the sandwich
Anderson is one of four kids eating the lunch meals at Franklin Library today. The other three are Madelyn, Matthew, and Jeremiah Angel—ages 7, 4, and 2. Their mother, Courtney Angel, 26, wears her two-month old infant in a baby wrap as she watches her three kids eat. The family also lives down the block from the library.
“I’m done with the applesauce,” Nazsire says, leaving his half-eaten applesauce on the table.
Wasmund instructs him to throw the container in the trash bin. Wasmund has been serving the meals at the library with the help of Youthprise for six years. Like any food-site operator working with Youthprise, she had to attend a two-and-a-half hour training on how to properly serve meals under the federal regulations.
Youthprise then sends staffers to visit all its summer food sites to monitor compliance within the first four weeks of operations. (Woodford is the only Youthprise staffer here today.)
Kids who don’t finish their meals can bring home only one unfinished item, and that item must be non perishable, for food-safety reasons. For example, if Anderson hadn’t opened his applesauce, he could have taken it home.
“The last thing we would want is to put a sandwich in someone’s bag and have them forget about it and eat it eight hours later after it spoiled,” Woodford says.
During the pandemic, the federal government temporarily waived some of the restrictions on taking food home. Schools, afterschool programs, and some daycare centers closed, eliminating in-person meal services. To compensate, food sites were allowed to combine up to seven meals in one grocery bag for each family to take home for the week.
Many food sites working with Feeding Our Future and another sponsor, Partners in Nutrition, pursued this take-home meal option. So did Youthprise. But as public facilities began opening in-person services, Youthprise started phasing out this option. Most of the federal pandemic-related waivers expired at the end of June 2022.
Tracking at Youthprise appears to be rigorous. Wasmund reports not just the meals that were eaten but any leftover meals that haven’t been served. If any leftover meals are fully intact, she can save the meals and serve them the next day, but only if they’re still within the four-day shelf life before expiration.
Wasmund is even careful about how she disposes of the leftover, half-eaten tubs of chicken salad—the main course for the lunch—by dumping the food remains into the compost bin and throwing away the containers.
Can you turn a profit off a $1.97 reimbursement for breakfast?
Food-program sponsors like Youthprise are, by law, nonprofits or local government organizations.
But several contractors and individuals who worked with Feeding Our Future and Partners in Nutrition allegedly spent federal food aid money on lavish personal purchases. These included expensive vacations, luxury cars, and lavish homes and commercial real estate. Aimee Bock is accused by federal authorities of taking a $300,000 kickback from a vendor and stealing $600,000 in Child Nutrition Program money—allegations that she vehemently denies.
Defenders of Feeding Our Future, including Bock and her attorneys, have pointed out that some food contractors successfully turned a profit from their work providing meals to kids.
“It’s not illegal in the U.S. to make money,” explained Andy Birrell, an attorney for Abdiaziz Farah at a court hearing in May.
Abdiaziz is the co-owner of Empire Cuisine & Market, a Shakopee-based restaurant that contracted as a food vendor with Partners in Nutrition. Federal authorities have accused Abdiaziz of misappropriating Child Nutrition Program money to make big purchases like a $2.5 million, 8,000 square-foot lakefront home in Prior Lake; but he has not been indicted on those allegations.
Youthprise has never made money off serving meals, said Marcus Pope, the organization’s president. The reimbursement rate for each lunch and supper meal in Minnesota is currently $3.92. The breakfast rate is $1.97 per meal and the snack rate is $1 per meal.
The lunch and supper rates aren’t enough to cover Youthprise’s participation in the program.
In pre-pandemic times, Youthprise used to sponsor as many as 75 food sites during the summer. That could mean $250,000 to $400,000 in costs not reimbursed by the federal government, Pope told Sahan Journal.
“To do this well, we have to leverage other dollars beyond the state reimbursement,” Pope said.
Federal waivers during the pandemic allowed food sites to source meals through an industry suffering from shutdowns and lockdowns: restaurants. Several Minnesota restaurants that acted as vendors in the Child Nutrition Program have been accused by the FBI investigation of committing fraud.
At the time, Youthprise considered contracting with restaurants to provide food, but ultimately decided against it, said Christa DeBoer, the organization’s nutrition director.
“We already had good vendors familiar with the needs we serve,” DeBoer said.
She added that the cost of a meal through a restaurant would have been a lot higher for Youthprise than through its existing vendors.
Snacktime is over
As the lunch hour winds down, Franklin Library begins a regimen of serving food again, this time with smaller snack meals. Today’s snack meals consist of a prepackaged Betty Crocker muffin, a bag of craisins, and a single-serving-sized container of apple juice.
Wasmund starts serving snacks at 2:30 p.m. sharp, again to meet the program’s federal regulations. Two of the same kids who ate lunch earlier unwrap their muffins and begin to eat.
Wasmund has until 4:30 p.m. to serve all 10 snack meals. What comes after that?
Sadly, not dessert—unless your idea of a treat involves more paperwork. At the end of her shift, Wamund compiles an official tally of every meal she served (and what’s leftover), which she types, methodically, into an online Youthprise database.