The Minnesota State Capitol, pictured here in 2020. Credit: Evan Frost | MPR News

The head of the Minnesota Department of Education on Monday spoke publicly for the first time about a federal investigation into potential food aid fraud and defended her agency’s actions to stop it.

Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) Commissioner Heather Mueller fielded questions  about the matter from state lawmakers at a Senate Education Finance and Policy Committee hearing, where she was criticized and commended for the department’s response. Mueller credited her department for starting a series of actions that culminated in an ongoing federal investigation into Feeding Our Future and several of its contractors, who reported that they provided free, ready-to-eat meals to low-income children.

“I want to be very clear that it was our team’s diligent monitoring that allowed us to identify concerns within the program so quickly in the summer of 2020,” Mueller said in her opening statements, adding that her department isn’t under federal investigation. 

It was the first time she spoke publicly about the investigation since news of the case broke earlier this year. No one has been charged in the case, but sources confirm a federal grand jury has been reviewing evidence for possible indictments.

Committee chair Senator Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, saw things differently from Mueller. He repeatedly questioned her about why the department didn’t execute in-person visits to nonprofit food sites that contracted with Feeding Our Future in order to verify that they were feeding children during the pandemic.

“If they were successful,” Chamberlain said of MDE’s actions, “then the FBI would not be involved, correct?”

Between 2019 and 2021, Feeding Our Future administered a total of nearly a quarter-billion dollars of federal money from two programs meant to feed children at daycare and afterschool programs. During the pandemic, Feeding Our Future’s food sites grew exponentially as schools shut down and kids reliant on school lunch still needed to be fed.

FBI search warrants unsealed earlier this year accuse the nonprofit and several of its contractors of defrauding the federal government by instead using tens of millions of dollars on personal purchases like real estate, expensive cars, and travel. Feeding Our Future Executive Director Aimee Bock and her attorney have repeatedly denied the allegations. 

When Mueller addressed the Senate committee, she immediately praised her department for raising concerns about the rapid increase in the number of food sites Feeding Our Future was reporting to them one month into the pandemic. She emphasized how the Department of Education escalated its concerns throughout 2020 by reporting their suspicions to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which manages the federal food programs.  

feeding our future

When the Department of Education started scrutinizing Feeding Our Future’s food site applications, the nonprofit returned with a lawsuit in fall 2020 alleging that the department’s actions were discriminatory because the nonprofit worked with food sites run mostly by immigrants and people of color serving children of color. 

Mueller noted Monday that in response to the nonprofit’s methods, the department froze federal payments to Feeding Our Future, only to be told by a state judge that it couldn’t.

The department then reported its concerns about Feeding Our Future to the FBI in April 2021, she said. The FBI opened an investigation in May, 2021. This past January, more than 200 federal and local law enforcement personnel raided 15 properties, including Feeding Our Future.

Chamberlain quickly zeroed in on federal pandemic waivers that the Department of Education sought during the alleged fraud. The waivers exempted the department from performing in-person visits at food sites, which are otherwise required by federal regulations to ensure oversight of the program. 

As an example, Chamberlain cited Minneapolis-based Safari Restaurant and Event Center’s claims that it fed 5,000 children each day during the summer of 2020. Safari is alleged to have conducted fraud in the scheme. None of the restaurant’s co-owners named in the search warrants have been charged with crimes, and the attorney for a Safari Restaurant co-owner denied any wrongdoing on behalf of his client. 

“One would think that a site visit could have helped out a bit,” he said.

Mueller, however, said site visits are only “one critical component” but not the “most important component” of the monitoring process. She contended that other monitoring efforts, such as reviewing Feeding Our Future’s financial statements, were sufficient to identify problems. 

“We knew something was wrong from the beginning,” Mueller said. 

“Yet you continued to pay them,” Chamberlain said of Safari Restaurant. 

Chamberlain continued: “Do you believe that what went on in the department to mitigate this risk was insufficient to capture and stop the fraud?” 

“It was not insufficient because we did capture and work toward stopping the fraud,” Mueller said. 

At multiple points, Mueller said that were it not for her department’s actions, neither she nor Chamberlain would be sitting in committee having their discussion. 

A state senate committee questions Minnesota Education Commissioner Heather Mueller about the Feeding Our Future scandal on April 4, 2022. Credit: Screenshot by Joey Peters | Sahan Journal

Chamberlain cited Feeding Our Future’s lawsuit in which a Department of Education official said last spring that he had no reason to suspect fraud from the nonprofit. The senator then asked Mueller whether she believed at that time that Feeding Our Future was committing fraud.

“I think that we know that because MDE doesn’t have investigative authority, we aren’t able to really identify if it’s fraud,” she responded. “So, there was not a label or a title that I would be able to give at this point in time, [but what] we do know is that we raised flags of concern.”

Senator Steve Cwodzinki, DFL-Eden Prairie, praised the Department of Education’s actions, saying he was “in awe” of how MDE caught potential problems at Feeding Our Future during the uncertainty of the early days of COVID. 

“Throughout all of that, the system worked,” Cwodzinki said. 

Toward the end of the hearing, Chamberlain wondered out loud why the potential fraud seemed most prominent in Minnesota. 

“Other states, they didn’t have this problem,” he said. “At least not that I’ve heard yet.” 

The State Senate Education Finance and Policy Committee plans to question more Department of Education officials about the fraud allegations two more times this month.

Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. He has been a journalist for 15 years. Before joining Sahan Journal, he worked for close to a decade in New Mexico, where his reporting prompted the resignation...