Feeding Our Future: are we closer to the beginning or the end?

I’m often asked the question, “How much more is there to the free-food scandal in Minnesota”? I’m tempted to quote Churchill’s line, we’re at “the end of the beginning.”

In terms of dollar amounts, by my estimate, the $250 million figure quoted by the U.S. Attorney is about half of the final total we are likely to reach in the scandal.

Early on in the scandal, I documented how much money the state Department of Education (MDE) paid out to organizations over the past few years from the free-food programs (along with a recent update). These are the biggest groups not affiliated with schools or childcare facilities.

Many of these groups are completely authentic and did great work during the pandemic. Some of the others will turn out to be frauds, I predict. Just looking at names and numbers, it is impossible to judge one group from the other.

MDE has suspended the three largest nonprofit networks from 2021: Feeding Our Future, Partners in Nutrition, and Gar Gaar Family Services. Feeding Our Future has gone out of business. Feeding Our Future and Partners in Nutrition appear in the indictments filed last month. Partners in Nutrition and Gar Gaar are suing MDE for reinstatement to the programs.

So far, 49 individuals have been charged with fraud in the case. With a fraud approaching a half-billion-dollars, hundreds of people would have to be involved to pull off a scheme of that scale. At some point, an individual’s involvement will prove to be too peripheral to justify the U.S. Attorney’s time and efforts at prosecution.

To date, the U.S. Attorney has indicted seven groups of alleged fraudsters, each built around a different food vendor. So far, the U.S. Attorney has named 10 food vendors (the seven, plus three more) in the indictments.

Examining records on file at MDE, there were at least 50 food vendors registered to the Feeding Our Future and Partners in Nutrition networks. Many of them may turn out to be legitimate. Some others may not be.

Between the two nonprofit networks and two government programs, there were upwards of 1,000 registered feeding efforts, sponsored by hundreds of separate local nonprofits. To provide scale, picking one network (Partners), in one program (Child and Adult Care Food Program), for one year (2020), and an arbitrary size (2,000 children per day or more) there were more than 200 feeding efforts registered with and approved by MDE.

It will take considerable time and effort on the part of the FBI to separate the wheat from the chaff.