The alleged free food scandal, beyond Feeding Our Future

Although the beleaguered nonprofit at the center of the alleged scandal gets most of the attention, there is a lot more going on below the surface.

On the surface, the alleged scandal involves two nonprofit networks, Feeding Our Future and Partners in Nutrition, that have together collected $460 million from the federal free food programs Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) and the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) over the years. The local agent for the programs, the state Department of Education (MDE), has suspended both from further participation.

Local media have not reported any new developments on the case for 11 days. But there is plenty more to see for those willing to do a little digging.

As noted before, there are two other nonprofit networks that participate in the two free food programs that are housed in the same St. Anthony office building as Feeding Our Future. These other two nonprofits have taken out $43 million from MDE over the past six years.

A document submitted on Nov. 18, 2021, by MDE (through the Attorney General) in the lawsuit filed by Feeding Our Future indicates that these two other nonprofits may be, in fact, related to Feeding. The note on the two other nonprofits and their relationship to Feeding is dated December 2020.

Both of these other nonprofits list as their sole food vendor the same restaurant that does not seem to exist except on paper, and whose corporate charter expired more than a year ago.

The two federal programs, which loosened restrictions on participation during the pandemic, have attracted Minnesotans’ entrepreneurial zeal. Here are a but a few examples. Names will not be mentioned here as they are not included in the FBI search warrants involving Feeding Our Future and Partners.

One is a St. Paul nonprofit just founded in late December 2020. In 2021, this newbie managed to collect over $2 million in free food money through MDE. Their network claims a maximum summer capacity to serve more than 7,600 children across its seven sites. Their three food vendors are all corporate entities formed in the sixth-month period from December 2020 to June 2021. Not a bad result given the pandemic, labor shortages, and a disrupted supply chain.

Two of these newly minted food vendors also serve a Rochester-based nonprofit network. Despite having a Rochester headquarters, its five sites, with a maximum capacity of 4,000 children, are all in the Twin Cities metro area. The Rochester nonprofit claimed over $800,000 in 2021 from MDE, its first year in the program.

Both the St. Paul nonprofit and the Rochester nonprofit have public websites. One site mentions free food distribution among its service offerings and the other does not.

The most curious case may be a Minneapolis nonprofit, which formed an eight-site network with a maximum capacity of 6,700. The sole vendor for the eight locations is a pizza parlor located conveniently next to the nonprofit’s offices. Records on file with the MN Secretary of State’s office indicate that the nonprofit’s founder was, at least at one point in the past, a corporate officer of the pizza place. The nonprofit founder currently lists his address as the same as the pizza place’s.

This nonprofit collected more than $2 million from MDE in 2021, the first year it participated in the free food effort. Curiously, the nonprofit’s webpage on its free food program is entitled, “Feeding Our Future.” The first three sentences are copied word-for-word from the old ‘About Us’ page on the Feeding Our Future website. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Another Minneapolis nonprofit last summer claimed the capacity to serve 6,500 children through their second floor office suite. At their second location in Bloomington, in an industrial building, they claimed to have the capacity to serve an additional 5,000 per day. Last year, they collected $6.4 million from MDE. The nonprofit’s website does not mention food distribution.

Meanwhile, in his recently announced 2022 supplemental budget proposal, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz is proposing to spend an additional $187 million per year on more free meals for school kids. Even as hundreds of millions of dollars in federal money spent in Minnesota remains unaccounted for.

Strange days, indeed.