Feeding Our Future: the food that was never served

As the first trial in the sprawling free-food scandal continues into its second week, government prosecutors are putting on witnesses to meals that were never served.

The U.S. Attorney alleges that the group of seven defendants — all associated with the now-closed Shakopee restaurant Empire Cuisine and Market — served only about 10 percent of the 18 million or so meals charged to the government.

For their part, the defendants claim that the meals were actually served, “real food to real kids,” and that they did so at a tiny fraction of the cost it would take anyone else in the food service industry.

Prosecutors are left with a task similar to the proverbial Sherlock Holmes’ “dog that didn’t bark,” trying to prove that millions of meals never existed. So they are putting on witnesses familiar with the sites where the defendants claimed to be feeding hundreds, if not thousands, of children day-in-and-day-out. Quoting from the Star Tribune account of Monday’s testimony,

A park supervisor didn’t see any lines of children getting meals at a Shakopee park during the COVID-19 pandemic, he testified Monday. Neither did an Apple Valley gas station owner at the park next to her business. And while a few families picked up groceries in a Minneapolis parking lot, it wasn’t the thousands of meals claimed to be distributed there, an office building worker testified.

An official with the Shakopee school system testified about his experience delivering meals to many of same locations claimed by the defendants. The Star Tribune quotes,

At one low-income apartment building, for instance, Empire claimed to serve 31,000 meals a month but the school district distributed about 800 meals a month, he said.

That’s the thing about 18 million meals. They would have to take up space: they would fill large volumes and weigh a lot.

The burden of proof is on the prosecution, of course. And we know from their pre-filed list of trial exhibits that the defendants plan on showing the jury photos and videos of pallets of food, bags of groceries, long line of cars, delivery trucks, lots of people, etc. No doubt that large volumes of food were distributed by the defendants.

Indeed, court records indicate that the defendants are fighting to have a 39-second video introduced showing a line of cars at one distribution site.

Pictures are compelling. But will the defendants convince the jury that they conducted an operation on this massive scale, every day, week after week, month after month, for more than a year?

The MN Reformer also filed a report on yesterday’s testimony, comparing the numbers. MPR’s report is here.

The trial continues today in Minneapolis.