Free food scandal: Case study of Bloomington, MN

In the Feeding Our Future alleged scandal, the numbers can be staggering. So, let’s focus on a single city as a case study in bureaucratic bloat to make the figures relatable.

A previous post covered the basic numbers in the alleged scandal, which largely centers on a federal government program aimed at feeding low-income children, the Summer Food Service Program. The state Department of Education (MDE) oversees the program in Minnesota.

Not one person has been arrested or charged.

In November 2020, the nonprofit network Feeding Our Future sued the Department for refusing to approve more than 50 additional locations, sponsored by the nonprofit, under the federal program. At the time, Feeding Our Future said,

One hundred thousand kids per day, conservatively, are not eating in Minnesota. Federal entitlement dollars are not coming to our state because they (MDE) refuse to take action or follow the law.

The implication being that Minnesota — facing a second pandemic summer — was dangerously under capacity in the basic function of feeding its children. Meanwhile, free federal money was left begging.

In the end, Feeding Our Future prevailed in court and MDE approved the bulk of their applications for the summer program. The Department also approved the applications of many other organizations across the state and within Bloomington.

The city of Bloomington, Minnesota, is home to the famous Mall of America. As Minneapolis’ largest suburb, its population is just under 90,000. Children under age 18 in the city total about 18,000.

Bloomington Public Schools enrolled in the summer food program, at all of their schools and two city parks. The district claimed enough capacity to serve their entire enrollment of 10,000 pupils.

Feeding Our Future had two approved sites within the city, with authorized capacity of 4,000 and 3,000 children, respectively. The latter site was located at a 50-unit townhome complex.

Seven other independent sites were authorized by MDE to serve children in Bloomington, sponsored by private schools, religious centers, and other nonprofits. The largest single location of these seven claimed a maximum capacity of 1,500.

All told, the maximum authorized capacity in the summer food program in Bloomington approached 21,000, more than the entire population of children within the city limits. Of course, some sites were only open once a week, and not every site (or any) would be expected to serve its maximum capacity every day.

On paper, though, there was more capacity available than demand for it to supply. It would appear that Bloomington was well-served by the program, with sites competing with one another to accommodate a finite population.

The Feeding Our Future sites have been suspended by MDE, bringing down the total Bloomington capacity by 7,000.

Across the Minnesota River in nearby Burnsville, it’s a similar story. This Minneapolis suburb has a population of about 64,300, with about 13,000 children. Feeding Our Future, along with the now-suspended nonprofit Partners in Nutrition, sponsored six sites with a maximum capacity of 5,700. Local public schools sponsored 15 sites with a total capacity of 7,500. Add in independent locations, and total SFSP capacity inside the city limits exceeded 17,000 children.

Further south, in exurban Owatonna, Partners in Nutrition claims 4 sites. The city of 26,000 has about 5,000 children. The local school district operates 9 sites serving up to 3,300 (at breakfast, more at lunch). With independent locations added in, the city is served by 16 locations with a maximum capacity of 7,800.

Nearby Faribault boasts even more impressive numbers. The city of 24,000 has, again, about 5,000 children. The local school district operates 10 sites with a maximum capability of 3,700. Feeding Our Future claims three sites, with an ability to serve up to 3,500. With independent sites included, the city is served at 20 locations, with a maximum capacity of more than 10,000 children.

It’s not just the metro area. The central Minnesota city of St. Cloud has a population of 68,000, with about 14,000 children. Feeding Our Future claims one location, with a maximum capacity of 2,000 children. The city schools offer capacity of up to 8,700. A wide variety of private and charter schools and other nonprofits are also sponsoring sites. All told, St. Cloud contains 63 free food sites with maximum capacity of over 18,000.

With summer 2022 fast approaching, there may be additional opportunities to better match actual need with program capacity.