The Feeding Our Future alleged scandal, three weeks in

What questions haven’t been answered? What questions haven’t even been asked?

It’s been exactly three weeks since 200 FBI agents raided the offices of a Minnesota free food nonprofit and related entities. However, not one person has been arrested or charged with any crime.

The alleged scandal centers on two nonprofit networks — St. Anthony-based Feeding Our Future and St. Paul-based Partners in Nutrition (aka Partners in Quality Care). The alleged fraud involves two Federal government programs, the Children 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 (MDE). The Department has suspended both networks from program participation.

The programs are meant to supplement school lunch programs in providing free food to low-income children. However, in the pandemic times, the income requirements have been quietly dropped.

The two nonprofits are relatively recent creations, organized to provide services to other nonprofits under the food programs. They grew quickly. Between the two, they have received $460 million from MDE, most of which was paid out in just the last 12 months.

Of that amount, the FBI search warrants only mention $48 million as being unaccounted for. Without a doubt, these nonprofits served some legitimate food distribution efforts.

The nonprofits have denied any and all wrongdoing. Feeding Our Future’s CEO has gone further, calling the MDE actions an “attack on a community.”

But three weeks in, we are left with more questions than answers. In a back-of-the-envelope calculation, these two nonprofit networks were feeding 200,000 children a day. How are these children being fed this month? Where is the outrage from the community?

More back-of-the-envelope calculations show that their combined operations were equivalent to 15 grocery stores’ worth of food distribution every day. If 15 full-size stores suddenly closed, simultaneously, wouldn’t that have been noticed, and remarked upon? In this time of supply chain shortages, are there now warehouses full of undistributed food piling up, without an outlet?

Of the five “W’s” of journalism (who, what, when, where, and why), the most neglected is ‘where.’

The FBI search warrants name dozens of people and companies said to be involved. In justifying the warrants, the FBI describes activities at a number of specific locations, including street addresses and dates.

MDE maintains a database of all program participants. For the two nonprofits, it lists hundreds of locations across the state where food distribution was to take place. The database includes street addresses, contact names and phone numbers, and a general plan of action (days of operation, which meals were served). Were the suspect locations victims of a form of identity theft or were they hugely successful locations for feeding children? A simple phone call could clear up the mystery or provide a feel-good success story.

Some sites were said to distribute food to thousands of children once a week during a limited few weekend hours. Were there contemporaneous complaints about traffic or noise? If so, isn’t this a logistical feat worth celebrating and reporting on?

Feeding Our Future is located in a multi-tenant office building. As it happens, there are two other, seemingly unrelated nonprofits located in that same building also collecting tens of millions of dollars from MDE for these programs. Mere coincidence? A few phone calls or a site visit could prove enlightening.

Furthermore, one of the FBI accusations involves the creation of numerous shell companies to facilitate the alleged fraud. Here’s an unanswered question: those individuals with the shell companies, did they set up any other companies? And what lines of business might those companies be in?

Similarly, the FBI search warrants accuse specific, named individuals of using ill-gotten gains to purchase homes and other assets overseas. Do those persons still reside in Minnesota? The Daily Mail would have found out by now.

The summer of 2022 is fast approaching. What is MDE doing to fill in the gaps left by the two suspended nonprofit networks? Is the agency doing any other work to oversee the program and verify results from other program participants?

Links to all the media stories on the alleged fraud are here. Sahan Journal has distinguished itself on its original reporting, collected here. Stay tuned.