The Potluck

Lawmakers question state oversight of federal meal programs in third hearing

By: - April 21, 2022 9:11 am

The Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul as the sun sets on Election Day, November 3, 2020. Photo by Tony Webster.

Minnesota education officials on Wednesday defended the state’s management of federal nutrition funds to lawmakers, during the third legislative hearing about nutrition program fraud alleged to have taken place early in the pandemic. 

Minnesota Department of Education leadership told members of the Senate education committee that the FBI investigation into the nonprofit Feeding Our Future for allegedly misusing federal funds is a sign that the agency’s internal controls worked.

FBI investigators say leaders of the nonprofit spent tens of millions of dollars intended to feed low-income children on cars and lakefront properties instead.

MDE Assistant Commissioner Daron Korte and Monica Herrara, nutrition director, echoed arguments made in earlier hearings by Commissioner Heather Mueller and Chief Financial Officer Denise Anderson. They didn’t seem to satisfy education committee chair Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, who led the hearings.

“We’re not very much closer to getting where we need to be as a legislative body to understanding, for the people, that this was properly managed,” Chamberlain said before adjourning the hearing. 

The FBI raided offices of St. Anthony-based Feeding Our Future — which managed more than 100 meal sites through federal programs early in the pandemic — in January as part of an investigation into what agents say was a large and complicated scheme to defraud the government. Feeding Our Future CEO Aimee Bock has denied any wrongdoing, and nobody has been charged so far in connection with the investigation.

Minnesota education officials said they raised concerns about Feeding Our Future with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs the food programs, in summer 2020 after the organization reported a rapid increase in the number of sites it managed.

MDE also began denying Feeding Our Future’s site applications that year. The nonprofit sued in response, and a judge ordered MDE to resume payments. In April 2021, MDE contacted the FBI, and the FBI began investigating the next month.

Chamberlain repeatedly asked Korte and Herrera whether agency staff discussed visiting Feeding Our Future’s meal sites when the organization reported surging numbers of meal sites and meals served. For example, court documents say Safari Restaurant in Minneapolis claimed to serve 5,000 meals each day — more students than some of the state’s biggest high schools.

The USDA requires state agencies to conduct periodic meal program site visits, but they offered waivers early in the pandemic as a COVID-19 precaution. Most states, including Minnesota, applied for and received the exemption.

Chamberlain criticized MDE’s decision to use the waivers, asking Korte whether a “more extensive and comprehensive site visit plan would have been a good idea in 2020.” Korte reiterated points made by other agency staff in earlier hearings, saying site visits are just one component of the state’s nutrition program oversight.

“We have almost 11,000 sites in the state and limited amounts of staff,” Korte said. “The site monitoring process is not something that’s necessarily used to uncover fraud or criminal activity. We’re not investigators. It’s to ensure compliance with federal regulations.”

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Rilyn Eischens
Rilyn Eischens

Rilyn Eischens is a former data reporter for the Minnesota Reformer. Rilyn was born and raised in Minnesota and has worked in newsrooms in the Twin Cities, Iowa, Texas and most recently Virginia, where she covered education for The Staunton News Leader. She's an alumna of the Dow Jones News Fund data journalism program and the Minnesota Daily. When Rilyn isn't in the newsroom, she likes to read, add to her plant collection and try new recipes.