Federal prosecutors have indicted 47 people in connection with an alleged fraud scheme that saw $250 million, meant to help feed hungry kids in Minnesota, instead go to luxury cars, commercial real estate, and vacation homes.
The numerous charges were announced Tuesday, Sept. 20, with the Department of Justice unsealing six separate indictments. In a statement, Attorney General Merrick Garland described the alleged plot as “the largest pandemic relief fraud scheme charged to date.”
The scheme allegedly centered around the non-profit group, Feeding Our Future, whose founder and executive director, Aimee Bock, was among the 47 people indicted. Bock and others are accused of defrauding the Federal Child Nutrition Program, which is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and helps bring free meals to children in need.
A lawyer for Bock, Kenneth U. Udoibok, tells Rolling Stone, “An indictment does not signify guilt or innocence. It’s the beginning of the criminal process. I’m surprised that Ms. Bock has been indicted because she did nothing worthy of indictment.”
In Minnesota, the state’s Department of Education oversees the Federal Child Nutrition Program. Meals are handed out at designated sites, which must be sponsored by an authorized organization (such as Feeding Our Future). The sponsors are responsible for monitoring the distribution sites and submitting reimbursement claims. The bulk of the reimbursement claims goes back to the sites, though the sponsoring agency retains 10 to 15 percent as an administrative fee.
At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the USDA relaxed some of the requirements to participate in the Federal Child Nutrition Program, allowing for-profit restaurants to participate and for food to be distributed to children outside educational programs. Though these changes were approved to ostensibly make access to food easier during the pandemic, authorities argue that Feeding Our Future exploited them to make off with millions.
In 2019, Feeding Our Future was receiving and distributing about $3.4 million in federal funds; by 2021, that number had jumped to nearly $200 million. Employees at the organization are accused of recruiting individuals and entities, such as restaurants, to open FCNP sites throughout Minnesota. Shell companies were allegedly created to enroll in the program as sites, too, and additional shell companies were made to launder the money all these sites claimed was going to feed hungry kids.
Feeding Our Family is accused of opening over 250 sites throughout Minnesota. On top of securing and distributing over $240 million in Federal Child Nutrition Program funds, the non-profit allegedly received over $18 million in administrative fees as well as bribes and kickbacks from individuals and companies they were sponsoring. All that money, the DOJ claims, went to purchase everything from luxury vehicles and residential and commercial property in Minnesota to international travel and real estate in Kenya and Turkey.
“This was a brazen scheme of staggering proportions,” U.S. Attorney Andrew M. Luger for the District of Minnesota said in a statement. “These defendants exploited a program designed to provide nutritious food to needy children during the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, they prioritized their own greed, stealing more than a quarter of a billion dollars in federal funds to purchase luxury cars, houses, jewelry, and coastal resort property abroad. I commend the work of the skilled investigators and prosecutors who unraveled the lies, deception, and mountains of false documentation to bring this complex case to light.”
While Tuesday’s sweeping indictments are a massive breakthrough, the case against Feeding Our Future has been building for several years. As the Star Tribune reports, the Minnesota Department of Education first questioned Aimee Bock about the drastic uptick in the number of sites her organization was sponsoring in 2020. The DoE even halted payments to Feeding Our Future in early 2021, prompting Blcok to sue the agency for discrimination because the nonprofit worked with minority communities (especially Minneapolis’ large Somali community).
The FBI started investigating Feeding Our Future in May 2021, and on Jan. 20, 2022, agents executed a massive search warrant operation that recovered over $3.5 million from a Feeding Our Future bank account. Additionally, the feds seized over $185,000 from Bock’s personal bank account, and $13,462 in cash, and a 2013 Porsche Panamera from her home.
Following the search warrant operation, Bock defended Feeding Our Future and denied allegations of fraud in an interview with a local Minnesota outlet, the Sahan Journal. “Feeding Our Future does not commit fraud, does not allow fraud, does not condone fraud, and most certainly does not actively participate in fraud,” Bock said. “I personally am passionate about making sure kids have the basic fundamentals of life, food. To read that all of my hard work is being twisted into something that it’s not is hard. It’s really hard.”