Federal authorities on Thursday executed a search warrant on the headquarters of Feeding Our Future, a nonprofit organization that claims to serve thousands of meals each month to children in need across Minnesota during the pandemic.
The FBI says the St. Anthony-based nonprofit was part of a broad scheme to defraud the U.S. Department of Agriculture of millions of dollars, funneling money from federally funded child nutrition programs to an array of entities to be laundered and used for personal real estate, cars and other luxury items.
Aimee Bock, founder and executive director of the nonprofit, did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.
The federal government distributes money to the state Department of Education to reimburse nonprofits and other organizations that provide meals for children. Yet, according to court documents, almost none of the money sent to this group went to kids.
On Thursday, more than 200 law enforcement personnel searched more than a dozen locations in the Twin Cities linked to the probe; no arrests were made. Feeding Our Future's St. Anthony office building was one of the sites raided by agents, who pushed carts stacked with boxes in the subzero temperatures to load into a truck.
FBI spokesman Michael Kulstad confirmed the agency, the Internal Revenue Service, Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, U.S. Postal Inspection Service and U.S. Marshals Service were working on the investigation.
Allegations include that federal funds meant to provide free meals to underprivileged children and adults instead went to extravagant expenses, such as property purchases in Kenya and trips to Las Vegas.
"Almost none of this money was used to feed children," FBI Special Agent Travis Wilmer wrote in a sworn affidavits in the investigation.
"Instead, the participants in the scheme misappropriated the money and used it to purchase real estate, cars, and other luxury items. To date, the conspirators have stolen millions of dollars in federal funds. The scheme is ongoing."
A person who identified as a staff member of Feeding Our Future said the FBI showed up at 8 a.m. and interviewed each employee before taking files; four hours later, they still didn't know why the agency was there.
Bock, of Rosemount, started Feeding Our Future in 2017 and claimed the nonprofit helped community partners participate in the federal food program, entering into contracts with sites it sponsored, according to court documents. The state Education Department became concerned about the sharp increase of funds going to sites sponsored by Feeding Our Future, according to the documents.
Feeding Our Future received $300,000 in 2018 from the federal Child Nutrition Programs and more than $197 million in 2021, according to court documents. The FBI began investigating last May.
According to court documents, Bock received a $310,000 kickback from a company misusing the federal funds and sent $600,000 of the federal money to her partner through a shell company.
Bock is one of at least three nonprofit employees who the FBI alleges misappropriated funds.
Safari Restaurant and Event Center received federal money from Feeding Our Future, and several of its employees created their own companies to enroll in the federal Child Nutrition Programs, sponsored by Feeding Our Future, according to court documents.
The employees claimed to be feeding meals to thousands of children a day and were reimbursed more than $10 million. But bank records show they spent most of the money on cars, real estate and other luxury items, investigators said.
No one was available at Safari Restaurant for comment Thursday. A sign posted to a window of the Minneapolis restaurant advertised the free meals for youth age 18 or younger.
In July 2020, the restaurant claimed to serve meals to 5,000 children a day — a large number considering that Wayzata High School, the largest in the state, serves 3,600 students, according to court documents.
By September 2020, an Education Department employee said Safari Restaurant was projected to serve a number of meals comparable to the entire St. Paul Public Schools district, investigators wrote. The department terminated the restaurant's participation in the program, and Feeding Our Future sued the department in November 2020, claiming the Education Department discriminated against a nonprofit that worked with racial minorities.
In a statement Thursday, the department said it moved to immediately terminate Feeding Our Future's permanent agreements under the federal Child and Adult Care Food Program and Summer Food Service Program.
The department said it also issued an order to stop payments to the group.
By summer 2020, the Education Department saw rapid growth in the number of community sites sponsored by Feeding Our Future and a massive spike in the rate of meal reimbursement claims.
"[Department] staff repeatedly worked with Feeding our Future representatives to understand the increased demand, but did not receive sufficient information and supporting documentation to explain the increase in meal reimbursement claims," the department's statement read.
The state reported irregularities to the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2020 and denied dozens of site applications starting in December of that year on the grounds that they exceeded regulatory caps for maximum children served daily.
It also declared Feeding Our Future "seriously deficient" over incomplete financial audits and a lapsed nonprofit status with the IRS and again for nonconformance with USDA standards.
The Education Department later issued a "stop pay" order. But in April 2021, a Ramsey County judge said he saw no regulations giving the state authority to stop paying Feeding Our Future at that point, and the department resumed payments..
"The children need this," Bock said at a June event, according to a video by Somali TV of Minnesota, adding about a rally outside the Education Department: "We will be showing the state exactly how many children, how many families, how many businesses are relying on this program, how needed it is."
The FBI began its investigation about a month before then, according to search warrants unsealed Thursday.