Statement: Federal Food Fraud during COVID
FROM: Ellie Lucas, CEO
Hunger Impact Partners
October 1, 2022
Seeing the news about indictments in the federal food fraud scheme, I was saddened. The alleged complex scheme to defraud programs for low-income children stains all of us who work in hunger relief for the most vulnerable.
Yet, we know that these food programs are critical to poor families, and that was especially true during COVID. When schools and businesses were shut down, our school districts and communities stepped up in a huge way:
- Schools continued to provide meals through mass distribution at neighborhood school sites for students and families, even using bus routes to drop off meals.
- Minnesota’s established, community-based organizations set up weekly meal distribution programs.
- Backpack programs, like Every Meal, expanded meals to include family packs.
- Food banks distributed meal boxes.
- Food shelves hosted food distributions locally.
These combined efforts were well orchestrated and efficient and are to be commended for their agility to provide meals during the pandemic crisis. Meals did reach low-income families with children.
Fortunately, meals were available to kids despite the allegedly fraudulent efforts of Feeding Our Future (FOF) and others who are accused of inflating the number of kids they claimed they were serving. According to the indictment, these tens of thousands of kids never existed.
At Hunger Impact Partners, we track Minnesota’s food insecure children through our big data analytics tool, Child Nutrition Index, where we can pinpoint kids by race, school meal eligibility, location, and those on Medicaid.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) did ease compliance regulations for child nutrition programs – rightfully so given the circumstances. It is not USDA, the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE), our Governor, or the hunger relief sector that needs to police this alleged egregious action. The truth is MDE stood up.
It never discriminated against the low-income children it works to serve, and its oversight of child nutrition programs never wavered. Thankfully, we have a justice system that can police those who game the system and take advantage of a safety net for the disadvantaged.
Those of us working in hunger-relief want to make the system work better for all we serve, and no one should be cashing large checks to do it.
ADDITONAL news coverage
Timeline of Feeding Our Future investigation (Star Tribune Sept. 27)
Key events in the history of the nonprofit and its indicted director, Aimee Bock. (The Star Tribune may require a subscription.)
The Great Pandemic Theft (New York Times, Sept. 27)
During the pandemic, an enormous amount of money — about $5 trillion in total — was spent to help support the newly unemployed and to prop up the U.S. economy while it was forced into suspension. (The New York Times may require a subscription.)
Covid-19 relief was plagued by fraud. Here is the right response. (Washington Post, Sept. 25)
To reach the most people without red tape and delays, relief programs were broadly targeted and did not include rigorous documentation and verification requirements. Congress did establish some guardrails, including reporting requirements for larger payouts, but the Trump administration resisted this oversight. Authorities instead bet on retrospective enforcement — a costly and inefficient approach. (The Washington Post may require a subscription.)
Justice Dept. Charges 48 in Brazen Pandemic Aid Fraud in Minnesota (New York Times Sept. 20)
The defendants were charged with stealing $240 million intended to feed children, in what appears to be the largest theft so far from a pandemic-era program. (The New York Times may require a subscription.)
Keeping track of the applesauce
Federal Child Nutrition Programs make it possible for Minnesota nonprofits to serve low-income kids. But while the lunch may be free, you pay for it in paperwork. (Sahan Journal, Aug. 18)