Feeding Our Future: Back to business as usual

The Minnesota State Senate held two much-needed oversight hearings this week of the state Department of Education’s handling of the Feeding Our Future free-food scandal. Unfortunately, we learned that the programs continue to operate with little, if any, changes.

The Department (MDE) oversees the two federal programs at the center of the scandal, the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) and the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP). Not one person has been arrested or charged in the case.

The case involves approximately $500 million in federal taxpayer money meant to feed low-income children that is, as of yet, unaccounted for.

The Senate Education Finance and Policy Committee, chaired by Sen. Roger Chamberlain (R-Lino Lakes), held two hearings this week. (Video from Monday and Wednesday.)

On Monday, the state Commissioner of Education, Heather Mueller, defended her agency’s work

“We’re sitting here because our process worked,” Mueller said. “We were able to identify the fraud, or the alleged fraud, at Feeding Our Future.”

Identifying fraud is one thing, stopping it is quite another. Commissioner Mueller testified that her agency repeatedly raised concerns with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to no avail. MDE was also stymied by the decisions of a county judge, who ordered that the money continue to flow to Feeding Our Future, overturning a “stop payment” directive issued by the Education Department. The agency would not explain why the court decision wasn’t appealed.

Wednesday’s hearing brought more of the same. The Star Tribune reported that MDE’s CFO, Denise Anderson, picked up where her boss left off on Monday,

“I think that the diligent monitoring and persistent reporting that we saw … shows that our risk activities worked,” Anderson said.

Notwithstanding the missing half-billion, of course. At this point, the missing cash is just so much water under the bridge. Unfortunately, the program continues on, with no apparent changes. During the Wednesday hearing, the Sahan Journal observed,

[Sen.] Chamberlain notes that MDE is still operating the food program. Anderson says the agency “continues to do their diligent monitoring.”

It’s not clear whether diligent is diligent enough. In preparation for summer 2022, MDE has already approved some 1,765 free-food distribution sites (update: now 1,781) for the upcoming season of the Summer Food Service Program. Although the vast majority of the sites are at schools and day care facilities, many are not.

Even at the schools, MDE has re-approved sponsors (Gateway STEM Academy) and addresses (8201 Park Avenue, Bloomington) where questions of fraud have been raised.

Mostly the Senate hearings were notable for the questions not answered. Whenever the inquiry became uncomfortable, MDE would hide behind the words “continuing investigation” and “grand jury.” In fact, a federal grand jury has been meeting since early February, but has yet to produce any results. A Fox 9 TV news reporter at the Wednesday Senate hearing reports that,

[State] attorney Eric Taubel says the federal investigation is ongoing and hints at grand jury involvement into what he calls “one of the largest fraud occurrences in state history.”

The Senate hearings will resume on April 20.