After claiming to serve more meals to needy children last summer than any other group in Minnesota, a new nonprofit has been booted by state regulators for breaking the rules, recently released records show.
Youth Leadership Academy, which collected more than $21 million in federal reimbursements for serving 7 million meals last summer, was rejected from serving school-year meals in December — one month before the FBI publicly revealed its massive investigation into child nutrition program fraud in Minnesota. Regulators found that the group had severely mismanaged its finances.
With the denial, the Minnesota Department of Education has now barred or suspended funding to the state's top three providers that claimed the most summer meals: Youth Leadership Academy of Minneapolis, Feeding Our Future in St. Anthony and Partners in Nutrition in St. Paul.
At Youth Leadership Academy, also known as Gar Gaar Family Services, Priya Morioka, the chief operating officer and chief financial officer, and Khadija Ali, its executive director, declined interview requests.
"As we are now in the midst of an administrative process, we are not able to comment further at this point in time," Ali said in a statement.
While Youth Leadership Academy and Gar Gaar Family Services weren't named in the FBI's unsealed search warrants in January, the organization has multiple ties to Feeding Our Future, which began shutting down last month after the FBI accused the group of being part of a "massive" fraud scheme involving the misappropriation of at least $48 million. So far, no charges have been filed and Feeding Our Future's leader denies wrongdoing.
Two of Youth Leadership Academy's founders, Morioka and Martin Mohamed, both operated meal sites for Feeding Our Future in early 2021. Also, state records show that Youth Leadership Academy has operated at least partly out of a historic Minneapolis mansion at 2722 Park Av. That's the address of a property that FBI search warrants allege was purchased with $2.8 million misappropriated from the meals program by owners of Safari Restaurant, one of Feeding Our Future's sites. Efforts to reach Safari Restaurant owners have been unsuccessful.
Besides Morioka and Ali, Youth Leadership Academy's board includes Minneapolis chiropractor Zeynep Tuzcu and former Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, who leads Global Minnesota, a Minneapolis nonprofit. Ritchie didn't respond to questions.
"I have no role in anything that's happening," said Tuzcu, who joined the board in November and hasn't been invited to a board meeting. "I have no idea what happened there."
A public relations firm representing Youth Leadership Academy also declined to answer questions, citing "multiple pending actions."
Gar Gaar Family Services and Youth Leadership Academy launched in 2020 as schools began wrestling with the pandemic. In her statement, Ali said the organization's mission is to "ensure Somali and other at-risk communities around the entire state were able to access programming, which might also include providing students with meals." "Gar gaar" means "help" in Somali.
Last summer, Youth Leadership Academy was reimbursed for providing 7 million meals — more than three times the number of meals St. Paul Public Schools provided during the same time period.
"Where are these kids coming from?" said Ellie Lucas, executive director of Hunger Impact Partners, a Minneapolis advocacy and research organization, adding that 260,000 Minnesota children ages 5 to 18 qualified for free- and reduced-price school meals in 2021.
The summer program spiked in Minnesota during the pandemic. Last summer, providers reported to the state that they dished out 37.3 million meals, up from 21.9 million meals in 2020 and 3.5 million meals in 2019. Part of that rise is because schools could extend the summer program during the school year amid the pandemic.
"It was curious to me to look at all of the organizations that were new to the space. They were serving high concentrations of kids ... In my experience, these programs scale over time," Lucas said. "Growing overnight, to me, is a surprise."
Mohamed said he wasn't surprised by the state's action against Youth Leadership Academy because he became concerned about the group's ability to supervise a large operation when it became a sponsor last year.
"Within three weeks, it became apparent to me that I couldn't work with them, so I left," said Mohamed, who has a financial background and said he helped start more than 60 nonprofits in Minnesota. "I did not like the behavior ... They gave me nightmares for months."
Mohamed declined to give details.
According to state regulators, the problems at Youth Leadership Academy were so widespread and severe that the organization was declared "seriously deficient" — a rare designation the Education Department usually makes just a few times each year.
Youth Leadership Academy appealed its denial, but an internal appeals panel upheld the decision Feb. 25 and gave the organization 60 days to challenge it at the Minnesota Court of Appeals. In a letter barring the group from serving additional meals, regulators cited Youth Leadership for paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to vendors last summer who weren't properly licensed or didn't have contracts.
One of those vendors, "The Produce," received $939,960 in September, two weeks before it received a license from the state, according to the education department. The company is managed by Fahad M. Nur, who was convicted of felony first-degree burglary in 2011 and released from probation in 2013, court records show.
Nur did not respond to calls or letters left at his home and business.
The Education Department, which oversees the state's child nutrition meal programs, faulted Youth Leadership Academy for packing food in bags that that didn't meet federal nutrition rules and mismanaging its finances, not keeping invoices for all transactions, failing to withhold at least $210,000 in payroll taxes and other errors. In one day in August, the organization reported "miscellaneous debits" of $650,019.
The nonprofit also was cited for proposing to serve meals at sites already operating with other sponsors, prompting complaints Youth Leadership was trying to steal those sites from other groups. The organization also failed to demonstrate it was filling an "unserved need," the department said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Summer Food Service Program is meant to provide children in low-income areas with free meals when school is out. A second program called Child and Adult Care Food Program reimburses organizations for providing up to two meals per day and one snack in non-school settings such as at child care centers.
Mohamed said he was disappointed by the group's failure because he started Youth Leadership Academy after becoming convinced that the Somali community needed to create its own network of meal providers instead of relying on outsiders such as Feeding Our Future, which is led by a white woman.
Feeding Our Future Executive Director Aimee Bock said Mohamed shut down his site shortly after she conducted a surprise inspection that revealed very few children being fed, despite the site's claim it was feeding about 1,700 children a day in March.
"It is alarming to not see traffic," Bock said. "We went in and couldn't find attendance records or anything like that."
Bock said she didn't report her concerns to the Education Department because Mohamed never sought reimbursement for any meals he may have served at the site. She said Mohamed's group, the U.S. African Chamber of Commerce, withdrew in April after he expressed his surprise at an inspection with no notice or supervision from state regulators.
Mohamed disputed Bock's account, saying his decision to shut down his site and start over with a new group had nothing to do with Bock's visit. He said he decided that Feeding Our Future was the wrong place to operate a program aimed at connecting Somali food vendors with Somali children.
"It was clear to me that this organization was going to fail the Somali community," Mohamed said. "And that is exactly what happened."
Youth Leadership Academy grew quickly, from zero summer meals in 2020 to 7 million meals last year at sites across the Twin Cities and in Faribault, Rochester and near St. Cloud.
Youth Leadership Academy is registered with the IRS, but hasn't registered with the Attorney General's Office as required by charities soliciting donations. No tax Form 990, which tax-exempt nonprofits must file, was available.