WILLMAR, Minn. – A video pans over trays filled with freshly cooked rice and marinated meat as a man's voice booms in Somali: "As you can see, the food is beautiful today. Come get the food for the children while it's ready."
Abti Liban, a popular Somali filmmaker and comedian, urges viewers to come quickly to a downtown restaurant in this city 90 miles west of Minneapolis.
"Please," he says. "I'm begging you: Come get the food before it finishes."
The video advertised a program to feed disadvantaged children during the pandemic — overseen by a firm that claimed to be serving 2,000 meals a day here last summer. Now the Willmar meal initiative is part of a massive FBI fraud investigation that alleges that tens of millions of dollars in federal government meal funds were misspent by a sprawling web of providers contracted by the St. Anthony nonprofit Feeding Our Future.
The FBI alleges that a firm called Stigma-Free International received millions from the federal meal program to serve kids in Willmar and other cities, but "bank records show none of this money was used to purchase food or meals for underprivileged children," the FBI wrote.
Contradicting the FBI, one of the owners of the restaurant says they did serve 2,000 free meals a day to immigrant families in need; several observers also saw customers coming for free food before the service was suspended in January. However, some residents were skeptical that that many meals were served, pointing out that such a large charity operation in a city of 20,000 would have drawn the attention of neighbors, including City Hall workers.
The difficulty in finding clear answers offers a window into a program that state officials say was plagued by mismanagement.
For starters, the address the government had on file was wrong.
Stigma-Free received approval to operate its meals program in a downtown building on 4th Street SW. that houses two Somali-owned businesses: a home health care company and a clothing and rug shop. The owner of the property, Tom Amberg, said that he never leased space to Stigma-Free and no tenant was licensed to serve food.
Feeding Our Future Executive Director Aimee Bock then told the Star Tribune that Stigma-Free ultimately chose another site around the corner and notified the Minnesota Department of Education. But the MDE never approved that site, records show, which means state officials would not have been able to verify that the site was providing meals.
Last spring the MDE sent a letter to Bock explaining why it found Feeding Our Future to be in "serious deficiency," saying that the nonprofit requested approval for more than 275 sites in its application for 2021 but had provided faulty information on 24% of them, including incorrect addresses.
Bock gave the Star Tribune a new address for the Willmar site on Litchfield Avenue, home to Faafan Restaurant. Willmar is home to about 1,400 Somali residents, according to the U.S. Census, and Faafan Restaurant is one of a number of businesses that opened recently to serve them.
Abdirizak Siyad said he opened Faafan Restaurant in 2017. He was approached in the fall of 2020 by representatives from a firm called Tunyar Trading to participate in the federal food program to provide free meals to needy children during the pandemic. Siyad said he signed a contract with Tunyar, providing and distributing food during the 2020-21 school year.
Tunyar Trading was formed in September 2020 and obtained a contract to provide food to sites sponsored by Feeding Our Future, according to the FBI. The company is owned by Abdikadir Mohamud, who received $956,400 in misappropriated funds from a different restaurant, the FBI alleged in a search warrant application.
"This was not my idea, and I did not propose to provide free meals nor did I go to anyone saying my community needs food," Siyad said in an interview in Somali. "They came to me, and I provided and distributed meals to families the way I was told."
Mohamud leased Faafan Restaurant and signed a catering contract with restaurant owners. He hired at least a dozen workers and spent more than $80,000 to enlarge the space.
Because of COVID and social distancing requirements, Somalis who often worked factory jobs were out of work and depended on the free meals. Some came from as far as Marshall and St. Cloud given that Faafan Restaurant was the only site in the area serving cooked food. In November, Faafan paused the restaurant business to rethink its operation because it couldn't manage the regular restaurant operation and charity operation at the same time.
The following month, Faafan started giving out free meals only and scrapped its regular restaurant business. Restaurant workers started cooking meals in the wee hours and used clickers to count how many meals they were giving out, serving until they ran out of food.
The Willmar site largely served Somali people, in addition to Latino and Asian residents. Siyad said he also delivered food to families who could not come to the restaurant to pick up the meals. He said Tunyar has not reimbursed them for January's meals. Siyad declined the Star Tribune's request to provide records showing the food purchases.
"I don't know where to get my money from," Siyad said. "I have given them all my documents and proof."
The restaurant shut down Jan. 20 after funding stopped, but it reopened this week.
"People are still coming to the restaurant and asking us if we can give them free meals," he said. "I'm telling them that we have stopped."
Neither Siyad nor Faafan is accused of any wrongdoing, and they are not named in the FBI's search warrants.
Feeding Our Future received $244 million in federal nutrition funds during the past four years and sponsored three prime contractors that investigators allege played central roles in a scheme to defraud the government.
One of those prime contractors is Minneapolis-based Safari Restaurant and Event Center, which created partnerships with other companies such as Stigma-Free International. Stigma-Free received state approval to serve meals in six cities: Mankato, Marshall, Minneapolis, St. Cloud, Waite Park and Willmar, records show.
Federal officials allege that Feeding Our Future and Safari submitted false invoices to the government seeking reimbursement for meals provided at the Mankato and Willmar sites in addition to three other sites run by separate entities. All five invoices dated July 31, 2021, were identical, each claiming to serve 2,000 meals a day for the entire month. The Willmar site also claimed to distribute 2,000 meals a day during August, according to federal documents.
The FBI says that bank records show that Stigma-Free transferred almost half of the $6.5 million it received from Feeding Our Future to Mohamud's Tunyar Trading. Tunyar then transferred the "bulk of the money" to other entities controlled by associates of Safari Restaurant, according to the FBI.
Mohamud did not respond to numerous request for comment.
Abdilahi Omar owns a halal meat and grocery store a block east of Faafan Restaurant. He said he has seen restaurant workers fill three vans with food.
"I don't know exactly how much food they used to give out or where and who they used to take it to," Omar said in Somali. "But in general, I know, and I have seen them giving out free meals to the community."
He added: "In my grocery building, I used to see them bringing meals to children that attended the mosque's Islamic school on the weekends. At one point, they even changed their offerings to make their food appealing to the kids. They started bringing sandwiches, fries and chicken because the kids didn't like rice and meat."
But the claim that 2,000 meals a day were served baffled some local leaders — including city planner Justice Walker, who works out of City Hall down the street from Faafan Restaurant.
"There is no way anybody in downtown was ever moving 2,000 meals a day for charity," said Walker in an e-mail. "Two thousand meals over the summer or a month, maybe. Two thousand meals a day, no."
By comparison, the Kandiyohi County Food Shelf says it distributed groceries to 1,070 people — nearly one-third of them children — for the month of August. Director Alana Ziehl said she hadn't heard of an organization giving out 2,000 meals a day to kids last summer; neither had the nutritional program for the school district of 4,000 students.
Kevin Dietrich, executive director of United Way of West Central Minnesota, recalled how various community and nonprofit leaders routinely met during the pandemic to make sure people in need had enough food. He works out of a building around the corner from Faafan Restaurant but said he had not noticed extra activity there or known of any program to provide 2,000 meals a day.
Bock's attorney, Kenneth Udoibok, said in an e-mail that Feeding Our Future staff visited the site and found "nothing that rose to a high level of concern." He added that Feeding Our Future serves the communities that have been excluded by current systems.
Families waited in their cars to be served, according to Siyad; he said that he didn't verify how many kids they had and that people would take several meals at a time.
Asked why neighboring workers did not know about the free meals being given out at his restaurant, Siyad said: "Someone who was taking two or three meals a day will not tell you [how many meals I gave out]. All they would know about is the three meals they were getting. The community knows us, but because this is a sensitive case, people are afraid anything they say might impact them."