The free-food empire strikes back
The suspended nonprofit Partners in Nutrition wins a round in its appeal against the state Dept. of Education. One of three free-food nonprofits suspended in the wake of the Feeding…
Nearly all the attention in the alleged free-food scandal has gone to the now-dissolved nonprofit Feeding Our Future. But the scandal involves a second, equally large outfit called Partners in Nutrition.
That second group found itself before a three-person appeal panel yesterday, trying to lift a suspension from program participation. The state Department of Education (MDE) suspended both Feeding Our Future and Partners in Nutrition immediately after the FBI raids in January.
A third group called Youth Leadership Academy (d/b/a Gar Gaar Family Services) was also shut down by the state. Together, the three non-profit networks were the largest suppliers of free-food not associated with public school districts in Minnesota.
Together, these three large free-food networks took almost a half-billion dollars out of two federal programs: the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) and the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP). In Minnesota, these programs are overseen by the state Department of Education.
The St. Paul-based Partners in Nutrition (d/b/a Partners in Quality Care) itself was not raided and the FBI has not accused the organization of any wrongdoing. But the FBI search warrants do list a number of Partners’ vendors as taking vast sums of money from the federal child nutrition programs without actually feeding children.
For its part, Partners denies any wrongdoing and denies any knowledge of fraudulent activity within its network.
Although the two organizations (Feeding and Partners) were founded by the same people, the Sahan Journal reports that bad blood has existed between Feeding Our Future and Partners in Nutrition for several years.
At the hearing yesterday, MDE was represented by a program supervisor, Emily Honer, who described the agency’s view of Partners in Nutrition, as reported by the Star Tribune.
She said the search warrants show that the organization “existed for the purpose of fraud, conspiracy and money laundering at the expense of needy children.”
Honer is also quoted as saying the following during the appeal hearing:
She said the nonprofit didn’t meet performance standards, failed to maintain adequate records and submitted “incredibly ridiculous” records to support its reimbursement claims. She noted that Partners sought permission to serve meals to more than 600,000 kids a day across all their sites, yet there are only 850,000 school-age kids in Minnesota.
It’s true. State records reveal that between the Feeding, Partners, and Youth networks, there was enough registered capacity to feed all of the children in Minnesota. In addition, the state’s public schools and independent childcare facilities, combined, registered enough capacity to feed all of the state’s children.
For 2021, MDE approved more than 4,000 sites across the state to distribute free food, with enough capacity reserved to feed each child, every day, several times over. For Fiscal Year 2021, MDE spent $785 million on these programs, more than double the pre-pandemic levels.
The appeal panel has until May 18 to render a decision. If the suspension is not lifted, Partners may appeal further to state court.