Minnesotans should be troubled by allegations that the St. Anthony nonprofit Feeding Our Future was using millions of dollars in federal funds to feed lavish lifestyles and pad bank accounts. If the accusations are true, outrage is in order.
The FBI raided the nonprofit late last week after filing documents in U.S. District Court in which investigators describe how Feeding Our Future misused millions of dollars that should have gone to after-school and adult day care programs to pay for food.
Instead, investigators allege the money went into the pockets of those involved in the scheme, including at least two dozen employees and associates of Feeding Our Future whose "personal expenses" included jewelry, an expensive car and lakefront homes.
Other charities rightly described the alleged gross abuse of funds as sickening. Not only has this alleged fraud literally taken food out of the mouths of those who need it most, but it also unfairly casts a cloud over other groups that use federal dollars properly.
Feeding Our Future touts itself as a group that uses its expertise and knowledge about federal programs to help end childhood hunger in Minnesota. According to its website, the nonprofit works to "personalize the food program process" to help other programs "maximize" government reimbursements.
But according to the FBI, investigators found little evidence the funds were used properly.
Federal funds for meals and snacks at schools, after-school programs and adult or senior day care are sent to the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) for distribution. To its credit, MDE raised alarms about Feeding Our Future when it reported sharp increases in meal funds. The nonprofit received $307,000 in federal child nutrition program funds in 2018. Yet by 2021, the organization was receiving $197 million that it said would pay for meals in several Minnesota cities, according to court documents.
MDE had tried to stop payments to the group, but in April 2021 a Ramsey County court told the department that it didn't have the authority and would need to continue to pay Feeding Our Future. By May, the FBI had launched its investigation.
Minnesota education officials told federal investigators that because of the pandemic, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) waived some of the requirements for the federal child nutrition program. Those waivers allowed for-profit restaurants and food distribution programs outside of education to participate.
The fraud allegations raise multiple questions. Among them: Why were the red flags initially raised by MDE rejected? In addition to the federal probe, should the state and perhaps the Office of the Legislative Auditor also conduct investigations? What changes need to occur with nutrition program requirements to prevent this in the future?
Claire Lancaster, press secretary for DFL Gov. Tim Walz, called the alleged fraud "an appalling abuse of federal funding and public trust." And Democratic U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, whose district includes Feeding Our Future's headquarters, said the allegations, if true, are "reprehensible."
Some Republican state legislators have smartly urged tighter oversight. State Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, who chairs the Senate's education committee, called for "an audit of all COVID-related funds ... ." State officials of both parties were right to praise MDE's efforts to stop payments and examine how Feeding Our Future was using the millions it received.
The investigation into Feeding Our Future will continue, and while it does state and federal officials should redouble their efforts on oversight of public funds.