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The Minnesota U.S. Attorney’s Office charged 47 suspects in a wide-ranging plot to defraud federal food-aid programs designed to feed needy children.
Instead of using the federal money to provide ready-to-eat meals, federal investigators say the nonprofit group Feeding Our Future and several of its vendors spent millions of those dollars on real estate, cars, and luxury vacations. Feeding Our Future’s executive director, Aimee Bock, allegedly partnered with several East African-run organizations to embellish the number of meals being fed to children so they could receive more federal funding, which they allegedly pocketed.
Sahan Journal assembled an explainer to help readers understand Feeding Our Future, federal food-aid programs, the history of the investigation, and how the alleged fraud took place.
Who has the federal government indicted and what are the charges?
For a complete list of who was indicted, see this Sahan article.
Where does the food-aid money come from, and how is it supposed to work?
The funds are allocated through two large programs—the Child and Adult Food Care Program and the Summer Food Service Program—that spent more than $4 billion in 2019 to provide meals for 7 million people nationwide. Together, these two programs are part of the broader federal Child Nutrition Programs.
Individual food sites, also known as vendors, use the federal money to make or buy ready-to-eat meals for underprivileged children and adults. Food sites can include schools, restaurants, daycare centers, nonprofit organizations, religious centers, and other groups. The meals they provide must be consumed on-site.
The food sites partner with sponsor organizations, which are larger organizations that are charged with vetting and overseeing the sites. Sponsor organizations receive reports from food sites about the number of meals they serve, approve the reports, and submit them to the federal government to receive funding for each meal.
The Minnesota Department of Education distributed the federal money to sponsor organizations, which then disseminated it further to their food sites.
What is Feeding Our Future?
Feeding Our Future was a sponsor organization. The non-profit was co-founded by Aimee Bock in 2016. Its stated mission was to administer federal food aid to smaller nonprofits, daycare centers, afterschool programs, and religious organizations. Feeding Our Future largely partnered with groups serving immigrant children and children of color from low-income families.
The organization dissolved earlier this year.
How did Feeding Our Future and sponsor organizations like it grow so fast?
The COVID-19 pandemic changed the way the federal funds were distributed. Before the pandemic hit in 2020, meals were largely served by public school districts during afterschool programs. School shutdowns during the pandemic led to more meals being served by nonprofit groups.
In 2019, Feeding Our Future received $3.4 million in federal food-aid funding. In 2020, the group received $43 million. In 2021, that number soard to nearly $200 million.
Which vendors worked with Feeding Our Future?
Feeding Our Future worked with dozens of smaller companies and nonprofits, including religious centers, tutoring organizations, and restaurants.
Some are familiar names, such as Safari Restaurant & Event Center, which was reported to have distributed food to afterschool and daycare programs. Other vendors, according to FBI search warrants in the case, allegedly existed just to defraud the government. Most of those companies were incorporated in the last three years.
When did the federal investigation begin?
The Minnesota Department of Education became suspicious in April 2021 and tipped off the FBI that Feeding Our Future may have been illegally diverting federal funds. The state couldn’t prove those allegations at the time, but the FBI opened its own investigation the following month, according to unsealed search warrants.
How did the alleged scam work?
Federal investigators believe that Feeding Our Future and its newly formed vendors claimed to have served thousands of meals that never existed. Investigators believe some vendors may have served meals but greatly exaggerated their numbers in order to receive money, and that other vendors were created only to report false numbers and never served food. Feeding Our Future approved reimbursement requests from both types of vendors.
The scale of the operation and the sheer size of the claims caught the state and federal government’s attention. Safari Restaurant, for example, claimed it fed 5,000 children every day in July 2020.
FBI search warrants in the case note that Safari’s numbers seemed unbelievable for a restaurant, because they surpassed attendance at Wayzata High School, the largest high school in Minnesota.
Feeding Our Future reported that a small, one-story building in Minneapolis served 60,000 children in November 2021.
Where does the FBI think the money really went?
According to FBI search warrants, Feeding Our Future allegedly sent $3 million to a firm called S&S Catering. Two people involved with that company subsequently spent $505,000 of that money on an apartment in Nairobi, Kenya, and $2.5 million on a commercial building on Lake Street in Minneapolis, the FBI alleges.
Feeding our Future allegedly funded an Edina-based nonprofit called ThinkTechAct Foundation (also known as the Mind Foundry Foundation), which claimed to provide nutritional support and enrichment education in science, technology, engineering, and math to low-income children.
ThinkTechAct received $16 million in federal food-aid funding in 2021. More than $11.5 million of that money went to various companies affiliated with a firm called Empire Cuisine and Market, which was founded in Savage, Minnesota, in April 2020. Millions of those dollars were actually used to buy real estate in Minnesota and Kenya, the search warrant alleges.
Bank records show roughly $900,000 went to a property firm in Nairobi. Another $1.1 million went to purchase adjacent shorefront lots on Prior Lake, Minnesota, in July 2021. And $575,000 bought a home in Savage for a co-owner of Empire Cuisine and Marketing, according to the warrant. The same co-owner of Empire Cuisine and Marketing allegedly sent himself $2 million directly.
The search warrants also detail expenses on cars, including an $87,000 pickup truck. S&S Catering, one of the companies that said it provided prepared meals, allegedly spent $200,000 at car dealerships in 2021. The search warrants also allege that Bock spent $15,000 of the federal money at a car dealership for personal reasons.
Search warrants allege that S&S Catering spent $49,000 on travel agencies, including to Amax Travel.
What is the Minnesota Department of Education’s role in the food programs?
State agencies work as intermediaries between the federal government and sponsor organizations. State agencies sign a program agreement with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to run the Child Nutrition Programs.
In Minnesota, the education department administers all five of these Child Nutrition Programs.
The state agency—in Minnesota’s case the education department—then signs a program agreement with each sponsor organization such as Feeding Our Future, a mosque, or a public school district.
So the Minnesota Department of Education is in charge of verifying that the sponsor organizations and the food sites are actually using the federal money to feed actual children?
Not exactly. Under the Child Nutrition Programs regulations, food sites submit the number of meals served every month to sponsor organizations, which then submit the number to the education department. The department then sends the meal counts to the federal government for reimbursement.
Does the Minnesota Department of Education physically observe whether these meals are being served?
Federal regulations require the Minnesota Department of Education to physically observe at least one-third of all independent sponsors (like Feeding Our Future), but only once every three years.
This process includes physically monitoring the sponsor organization and 10 percent of all the food sites under the sponsor.
For sponsor organizations that support more than 100 food sites—that includes Feeding Our Future—the education department must physically observe them once every two-and-a-half years.
For example, if Feeding Our Future sponsored 200 food sites, the state of Minnesota was supposed to visit 20 of them over the course of 30 months.
Did the Minnesota Department of Education ask to skip visits that were supposed to ensure food money was being spent correctly?
In 2021 and 2022, the USDA allowed state agencies to skip physical observations of food sites to limit the spread of COVID-19, and instead conduct virtual observations. The Minnesota Department of Education successfully applied for federal waivers to skip physical visits of food sites. An education department spokesperson, however, has said that physical observations are only a small part of the overall monitoring.
Minnesota Education Secretary Heather Mueller emphasized this point repeatedly during legislative hearings about the alleged fraud this summer. She added that other parts of the education department’s monitoring efforts, like reviewing a sponsor organization’s financial records, prompted the department to catch the fraud.
The Minnesota Department of Education and just about every other state agency in the country that administers Child Nutrition Programs money applied for waivers to skip physical observations, according to Kathy Larin, director of education, workforce, and income security at the Government Accountability Office.
“When COVID hit, the priority was to get the meals out to kids,” Larin said. “This was the emphasis, more than ensuring the integrity of the program.”
What came of the state Senate hearings about the Minnesota Department of Education’s role in the alleged fraud?
A state Senate committee released a report earlier this month criticizing the education department for “magnifying” the alleged fraud. Senate Democrats called the report, which was written by Senate Republicans, one-sided.
The committee’s report found that the education department did not follow state and federal laws in administering federal Child Nutrition Programs dollars. The department was also criticized for scaling back its physical visits to food sites.
Who was in charge of holding the food sites accountable for how they spent Child Nutrition Program money?
Under federal rules and regulations, sponsor organizations agree to shoulder the responsibility of complying with the program’s federal guidelines.
This includes the sponsor organization making periodic physical and virtual visits to food sites, and reviewing food sites’ documents to ensure that meals are being served to children.
Does that oversight process provide enough checks and balances to keep fraud from occurring?
Not according to the federal Government Accountability Office, which has been raising concerns since 2018 about insufficient oversight of the federal food-aid funds.
The Government Accountability Office released a report that year concluding that the U.S. Department of Agriculture asked states to use documentation methods that “provide unreliable estimates of participation” in the program.