Operators of a large nonprofit filed a federal lawsuit Friday against the Minnesota Department of Education, claiming the department has illegally forced them to suspend operations facilitating the delivery of nutritious meals for thousands of poor children.

Partners in Nutrition, which operates as Partners in Quality Care, claims regulators with the state Department of Education (MDE) have forced most of its meal-providing subcontractors to flee the organization, including more than 300 that offered free after-school snacks and dinners.

The lawsuit comes months after federal investigators raided the offices of Feeding Our Future, a competing nonprofit, creating turmoil in federally funded meals programs that are overseen in Minnesota by the education department.

"I think there are a lot of programs that will feel they have nowhere to turn," said Robyn Tousignant, Partners' interim executive director.

Partners has battled MDE for years. The group's first application to participate in the federal meals program was denied by the education department in 2016, leading to a lengthy court battle that Partners won; the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled that MDE's denial was "arbitrary and capricious."

The department moved to terminate Partners' participation in federal child nutrition programs in January, after the FBI unsealed search warrants alleging widespread fraud centering on Feeding Our Future. Both nonprofits focused on serving minority communities.

According to the warrants, Partners paid more than $25 million to three subcontractors who spent "little, if any, money to purchase food or provide meals to children." Those three subcontractors also received millions in allegedly fraudulent payments through Feeding Our Future, according to the warrants.

So far, none of Partners' employees or board members have been charged with a crime. In the lawsuit, the nonprofit said it has not been "identified as a target of the federal criminal investigation." Previously, Partners said it immediately cut ties with subcontractors named in the warrants.

"It would be inappropriate for MDE to comment on pending litigation," MDE spokesman Kevin Burns said in a written statement Friday. "We want to be clear: MDE remains committed to ensuring that young people have access to healthy and nutritious meals. We work to make sure that any providing organization that previously worked with [Partners] can continue to serve children."

MDE officials have said they did everything they could to protect taxpayers by quickly alerting federal officials to suspected fraud at Feeding Our Future, but some legislators have criticized the department for not taking stronger action to limit losses.

Partners "should not be a scapegoat for MDE's dereliction of duty," the lawsuit says. "After five administrative proceedings and the attendant delays incurred, this lawsuit is brought to put an end to MDE's abuse of government power that ultimately hurts the communities that are most deserving of its help."

The federal investigation forced the closure of Feeding Our Future in February, leaving more than 100 meal sites without a sponsor.

Lafayette Butler-Robinson, a consultant who works with more than 100 child care centers, said recently that most of her clients abandoned the meals program in recent months because they are afraid of getting caught up in the ongoing investigations. She said they are now paying for meals out of their own pockets, which some centers said is stretching their budgets perilously thin.

While the state also allows child care centers to sponsor themselves, Butler-Robinson said that is a daunting process, especially for immigrants who are not used to dealing with cumbersome paperwork requirements.

"The state is not helping," Butler-Robinson said. "Even though Minnesota is a great state to live in, it is not a great state when English is not your first language."

Some day care operators who previously worked with Feeding Our Future said MDE officials recently suggested they contact Providers Choice, which has participated in federal child nutrition programs since 1985.

Lubna Malik, manager of Kids Choice in Rochester, said recently that she was grateful when an MDE official suggested she reach out to Providers after she was left without a sponsor due to the closing of Feeding Our Future.

"Personally, I am so happy," Malik said. "We eat halal and they were very flexible in picking a menu that suits the Somali community."

In its lawsuit, Partners accuses MDE of engaging in a "vendetta" aimed at steering its clients to Providers, claiming that the department made it clear that Partners "is not MDE's preferred" sponsor.

The lawsuit said Partners' founders left Providers Choice "because they did not feel that Providers Choice adequately met the needs of Minnesota's ethnic minorities, particularly immigrant communities from East Africa."

"Providers Choice declines to comment on any pending litigation, except to say that Providers Choice is ready and able to serve Minnesota's children and child care providers and has the capacity to take on additional licensed child care centers that meet the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) requirements," the organization said Friday in a written response to questions.

In telephone interview, Burns said the department has not shown a "bias" in favor of Providers.

Burns acknowledged that MDE employees have recently recommended that meal providers contact Providers Choice if they are looking for a sponsor, but he said the department has also referred providers to five other nonprofit organizations, including YouthPrise, The YES Network and public school systems in Minneapolis, St. Paul and Osseo.

"We are referring people to places that we know have the capacity and willingness to consider additional sponsorships," Burns said. "But there is no inherent bias as to how we are assisting entities looking for sponsorships."

Partners in Nutrition is asking the courts to issue a temporary restraining order that would allow the St. Paul-based organization to continue its participation in federal child nutrition programs.