Behind the scenes as Feeding Our Future battled for free-food market share

Three more unmarked packages of documents arrived at the office last week, filled with correspondence related to the Feeding Our Future scandal.

If you believe the FBI, government programs operated in Minnesota meant to feed children during the recent pandemic represented the largest Covid-related fraud in the USA. Hundreds of millions of dollars were lost to fraud. The local U.S. Attorney has, so far, indicted 50 persons and achieved five convictions in the case via guilty pleas.

As you would imagine in a scheme so vast, there was a mad scramble to cash in while the good times lasted. The documents that arrived via U.S. Mail last week give some insight into the competition between three nonprofit groups trying to access free-food dollars.

Basically, the story goes like this: a group of business women founded a nonprofit called Partners in Nutrition in 2016 to get into the free food for children business. In 2018, they had a falling out and Aimee Bock left to start up Feeding Our Future. In 2019 and 2020, she hired some Somali-speaking staff and began to aggressively recruit clients (mostly day cares) away from her former employer. In 2021 her former employer and other competitors struck back, actively taking away her customers, with promises of lower fees and higher reimbursements. The documents record this battle for market share (and hundreds of millions of Federal dollars) raging back and forth, right up to (and beyond) the FBI raids in January 2022.

Many names appear in the more than 110 pages of letters, emails, spreadsheets, and other documents. Aimee Bock, CEO of Feeding Our Future, has been indicted in the case. Few of the other names appearing have been accused of any wrongdoing, at any time.

Unlike the first batch of documents we received last month, these documents do not include accusations of wrongdoing among program participants. Rather, they show nonprofit executives and state bureaucrats unsuccessfully managing the massive, unprecedented growth in these Federal programs, while complying (or not) with the multiple layers of rules governing them.

If anything, the documents reveal a preference by state officials to cut corners on regulatory niceties in order to reduce disputes and speed up payments.

They also provide a glimpse into the cutthroat competition between three nonprofit networks (called “sponsors”) as they vie for the loyalty of local nonprofit food distributors.

The three sponsor networks–Feeding Our Future, Partners in Nutrition d/b/a Partners in Quality Care, and Gar Gaar Family Services a/k/a Youth Leadership Academy–acted as go- betweens, linking local nonprofits (who did the actual food distribution) with the program overseers, the state Department of Education (MDE).

All three networks took commissions ranging from 10 to 15 percent of revenue for providing services. Meal reimbursements ranged from $1 to $4 per meal. The three in question–Feeding, Partners, and Gar Gaar–were all shut down by MDE over the Feeding Our Future scandal.

The largest batch of documents we received last week (PDF #4, 54 pages) show the three networks fighting over local nonprofits as the locals shifted from one network to another, looking for a better deal. PDF #4 begins with correspondence between Feeding Our Future’s Aimee Bock and the state Department of Education concerning a number of nonprofits leaving her network.

The document on page 1 is dated March 2021. Recall that she had poached a bunch of sites the previous two years and was now being beaten at her own game.

(A reminder: except where noted, of the names mentioned below, only Aimee Bock and a few others have been accused of any wrongdoing. Bock is Defendant No. 1 in the case. She has pled not guilty.)

The documents reveal that Bock took the position that any nonprofit looking to leave her network for greener pastures immediately became nonpersons and she would refuse to submit any additional invoices on their behalf. Pour le encourager des autres.

Most of what follows involves the effort to sort out what to do with invoices incurred during that interval from when local nonprofits apply to switch networks, but before the transfer applications have been approved by MDE. Often the process would take two to three months to complete.

In the table at the bottom of PDF #4, page 1, a couple of items jump out. Minnesota’s Somali Community appears to refer to a nonprofit owned by Sharmarke Issa, Defendant No. 34 in the case. Despite the indictment, the nonprofit is still seeking reinstatement to the program through Partners in Nutrition.

Partners had been suing MDE in both state and Federal court for reinstatement. Wednesday, Partners withdrew their Federal action. The state lawsuit is looking at late December, early 2023 dates for a hearing before the state Court of Appeals.

The next line in the page 1 table refers to an address: 312 W. Lake St. in Minneapolis. At the time the email was written, there were five separate free-food efforts registered at that one address, three with Partners in Nutrition and two with Feeding Our Future.

The nonprofit in question, Academy for Young Leaders, ended up with a location elsewhere in Minneapolis, serving 1,000 children per day, and a second location in Eden Prairie, also serving 1,000. The nonprofit has three invoices from 2022, unpaid, pending at MDE.

The last nonprofit mentioned on page 1, Action for East African People, was the subject of this profile in the Minnesota Reformer, which we discussed here. The Bloomington-based nonprofit claimed to feed 6,400 children per day.

Page 3 of PDF #4 begins coverage of a dispute over the nonprofit Average Mohamed. The proprietor of Average Mohamed is Mohamed Ahmed, the recipient of the U.S. State Department’s 2020 Citizen Diplomacy Award. Ahmed includes this honorific in the signature line of his correspondence.

The nonprofit was the subject of this Star Tribune report, which we discussed here. The nonprofit has three invoices pending, unpaid, at MDE and is seeking reinstatement to the program through the Partners in Nutrition state lawsuit against MDE.

Page 4 is the first indication of MDE’s willingness to cut corners on regulations in order to clear a dispute. Feeding Our Future insists that it is no longer monitoring Average Mohamed, but MDE suggests it can still submit invoices on behalf of the local nonprofit.

The email on page 5 of PDF #4 is addressed to Priya Morioka, the COO of Gar Gaar Family Services, a/k/a Youth Leadership Academy. Gar Gaar is also suing MDE for reinstatement to the free-food program, with a court date set for December 1.

Until recently, Morioka was a member of Gov. Walz’ workforce development board. She is no longer listed as a member. Data requests submitted last month to the state Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) regarding her tenure on the board have gone unanswered by the agency.

Speaking of DEED, there is another connection between the agency and Gar Gaar Family Services. One of Gar Gaar’s largest member nonprofits is the organization Somali Community Resettlement Services (SCRS). SCRS recently hired Anisa Hajimumin as a consultant the organization.

According to her LinkedIn page, from June 2020 until August 2022, she served as DEED’s Assistant Commissioner for Immigrant and Refugee Affairs. Prior to that, she served as an official in the regional government of Puntland, Somalia. She was profiled at the start of her DEED stint by Twin Cities Business.

DEED is one of several state agencies underwriting the work of the nonprofit SCRS. Over the past five years, SCRS has received $660,000 in grant money from DEED. SCRS recently purchased a historic mansion in Minneapolis for $2.6 million.

The email beginning on page 7 originated from Khadija Ali, CEO of Gar Gaar/Youth. Together with Morioka, the two are also, respectively, CEO and COO of a well-regarded translation business. Individually, and as business partners, the two have won award after award, year after year for their management prowess.

So, what is most astonishing about their tenure running Gar Gaar, is the scale of the mismanagement cataloged by MDE in shutting down the nonprofit. Gar Gaar’s lawsuit against MDE is to appeal a decision where MDE ruled against the nonprofit,

for failure to demonstrate financial viability and financial management and failure to demonstrate program accountability.

P. 9, Para. 4.

Data requests submitted last month to MDE regarding Gar Gaar Family Services have gone unanswered by the agency.

Pages 5 to 25 of PDF #4 deal with who should submit a May 2021 invoice for GGFS. At the time, GGFS operated a site in St. Anthony with Feeding Our Future. It was in the process of striking out on its own. The site in question was photographed last winter.

On page 26 of PDF #4, we return to the subject of Average Mohamed. This email from Aimee Bock is cc’d to Hadith Ahmed, a Feeding Our Future employee who was Defendant No. 46 in the case. He was the second defendant to plead guilty in the case.

The email on page 28 is directed to Kara Lomen, then the CEO of Partners in Nutrition. A recent filing made by MDE in Partners’ now withdrawn Federal lawsuit indicates that Lomen is no longer with the organization.

Although the timing is confusing, the email from MDE on page 29 of PDF #4 appears to suggest that a transaction should be backdated to accommodate the payment of an invoice for Average Mohamed.

Page 33 begins a separate dispute from early 2022 with local nonprofit All Star Academy. All Star has four unpaid invoices pending with MDE for 2022. The email from Aimee Bock is dated from less than a week prior to the unrelated FBI raids.

The last four pages of PDF #4 revisit the nonprofit Action for East African People. Page 53 references a food-distribution site at 8735 Portland Avenue in Bloomington. That address is the site of an apartment complex. The AFEAP site at that address has a listed capacity of 850 children per day.

The Crossings at Valley View is separately listed under the sponsorship of Partners in Nutrition, with a registered capacity of 1,500 children per day.

Perhaps by complete coincidence, that complex is listed as the home address for an executive of GGFS.

In a second envelope received last week, were the 40 pages in PDF #3. As before, the white outs of identifying information were done by me. Other redactions and color highlighting were as delivered to us as the Center.

The documents portray Partners in Nutrition struggling with the surging growth in their network in 2021. Quoting then CEO Kara Lomen,

The reason that the requests are growing is word of mouth.

(PDF #3, p. 2.)

Work had gotten out: unlimited funds were available to all who applied.

Lomen gives an update on what has been happening “in the field” in early 2021 with childcare and adult day care operations.

People have been pasting copies of payment checks on social media

(PDF #3, p. 4)

A long list of nonprofits changing sponsor networks can be found beginning at page 5 of PDF #3. Some of these names (EPIC Therapy, Mind Foundry, etc.) would later appear in indictments in the case. Partners in Quality Care applied for their own proprietary food distribution site (p. 8).

Many of these sites appear on the list of locations suing for reinstatement.

In the PDF #3 packet, from pages 10 through 22, a series of spreadsheets appear. A partial hearing transcript from April 2022 begins on page 23.

Page 26, line 16, repeats the claim from MDE that Partner in Nutrition registered enough capacity to feed 600,000 of the state’s 850,000 children through their network.

The series of documents beginning on page 28 attempts to show more wrongdoing by Partners, alleging nepotism among its executive ranks.

The last envelope received last week (PDF #2) was the smallest. Seventeen pages documented the long history between the leading figures of Feeding Our Future and Partners in Nutrition.

Pages 1 through 5 are the original incorporation papers for Feeding Our Future. The names of both Aimee Bock and Kara Lomen appear.

Pages 6 through 11 include MDE’s response to a site recruiting complaint made by Partners against Feeding Our Future. MDE could not substantiate the complaint.

I have redacted the name of a Feeding staff person from the document. I was given this name independently as the key person that enabled Feeding to grow exponentially within the Somali community. As this person has not been indicted and his name does not appear in any FBI search warrants in the case, I have omitted it from publication, at this time.

The next few pages are related to Feeding Our Future’s tax-exempt status with the IRS.

The last two pages in PDF #2 are an email inviting a visit to see Feeding Our Future’s operations.