A recent meeting at Minneapolis' Karmel Mall was urgent for the Somali American leaders who convened it: FBI agents had been peppering business owners and shoppers with questions surrounding a fraud investigation involving government-funded child nutrition programs, and the leaders felt the whole community was once again under siege.

Anxiety filled the meeting. Would the investigation of just a few people scare Somali American parents from seeking food for their children, even if they desperately needed it? Would other support programs disappear altogether, a casualty of mistrust?

"This is hitting the community really hard," said Bashir Garad Dahir, who later described the meeting. "We need crystal clear answers from the government. At some point we will come out and demand it because we're concerned about the way the FBI is conducting its investigation. It is terrorizing the community."

The FBI is investigating an alleged broad scheme to defraud the U.S. Department of Agriculture of tens of millions of dollars in child nutrition spending. Instead of feeding children, court documents allege an array of entities used the money to buy real estate, cars and other luxury items. According to FBI documents unsealed so far, many of the subcontractors under investigation are from the Somali community.

The FBI has declined to comment on the investigation.

Somali American leaders and activists have been scrambling to find answers. They are confused about how such an alleged massive fraud could happen under the watch of the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE), which is responsible for distributing federal funds to the program sponsor. Some are worried that the issue will turn the community into a political punching bag in upcoming elections.

"People are scared," said Yussuf Haji, an activist and writer who ran for a Minneapolis City Council seat in November. "People are looking for answers, and that has also created some sort of tension in the community."

Mahamud 'Xidig' Jama, a robotics engineer, said MDE should have been more involved in the program, giving guidance and training to organizations distributing the food. He said he witnessed food being distributed in the community but questioned the volume of meals some of the subcontractors had claimed.

The nonprofit Feeding Our Future has been named in FBI search warrants, along with several subcontractors. Feeding Our Future's founder and executive director, Aimee Bock, denied any wrongdoing and said she was being targeted for suing the state and working with mostly minority businesses. Her organization focused on providing culturally relevant food to children of color, she said.

MDE first raised concerns about the amount of reimbursements Feeding Our Future was requesting in 2020 and denied dozens of site applications and stopped payments. The organization sued, and in April 2021, Ramsey County District Judge John Guthmann ordered the department to resume payments. That same month, MDE provided information to the FBI, which began investigating in May.

So far, no one has been charged or arrested in connection with the case.

MDE said in a statement in January that the agency has "limited investigative and enforcement authority" over the federal programs but was working to help organizations affected by the "stop-pay" order against Feeding Our Future "to ensure that impacted children and families still have access to the food support they need."

Because of the heightened scrutiny of the meal program, some Somali-owned businesses might be afraid to seek funding to help needy families, said Mohamed Mumin, a Bloomington resident who works in the health care industry.

"The community is going to pay a heavy price," he said. "Even now, the people who really need these free meals are not getting it."

Sadia Mohamed, who works at two Minneapolis-based day care centers, said low-income Somali families relied on the free meals. Since the program stopped, Hennepin County has been trying to get a count of how many families were recipients of the meals, but many are too afraid to come forward, Mohamed said. Though they did nothing wrong by getting free meals, they now fear losing their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits or going to jail just by being associated with it, she said.

"These families still need these free meals, but they are scared to ask for it," Mohamed said. "There's a lot of fear. They think that they will go to jail, and they are even losing sleep over the fact that they got free meals when they needed it."

Foos Nur, a Columbia Heights mother of six school-age children, said free meals were delivered to her home early in the pandemic, and sometimes she would go to Somali-owned restaurants to pick it up. She said she stopped taking it because her children prefer American food and did not eat it. Nur said the fraud allegations leveled against some members of the community make her sad because "some people were doing good work and serving the community."

"It would have been better if the government had given us debit cards to purchase our own food," Nur said.

At a Minnetonka apartment building that houses many Somali families, neighbors and friends Amal Yusuf and Sagal Abdirahman said unknown people and a female neighbor had been bringing free groceries from halal stores as part of the meal programs since summer 2020. But in February, the free food stopped.

"They used to leave the groceries in front of our apartment doors regardless of whether we wanted it or not," said Yusuf, a mother of three children. "If it's not us, others will definitely miss getting the food."

Meanwhile, at a Starbucks in Bloomington, Jama and his friends debated whether the community, which they said is known for being resilient, can bounce back from such a "big scandal."

"We can definitely recover from this if we educate ourselves before running any future programs," Jama said. "The whole community did not commit these mistakes. It was few individuals who did."

Hassan Mahamed, a second-year engineering student at the University of Minnesota, said he thinks it's not that easy, noting the community will fall victim to discrimination in the future.

"The community's name has been damaged," Mahamed said. "Somalis can say, 'Let this be a learning lesson for us,' but the state already has this in the record and will not trust the community again."

"True," Jama replied. "That's the sad part."

Added Mumin: "But people need to know that corruption has no race, ethnicity or religion."

Staff writer Kelly Smith contributed to this story.