Minnesota Department of Education Targeted One Nonprofit to Help Another

The operators of a large nonprofit organization filed a federal lawsuit Friday against the Minnesota Department of Education, claiming the department unlawfully forced them to suspend operations facilitating the delivery of nutritious meals to thousands of poor children.

Partners in Nutrition, which operates as Partners in Quality Care, says state Department of Education (MDE) regulators have forced most of its contractors providing meals to flee the organization, including more than 300 that offered free after-school snacks and lunches. .

The lawsuit comes months after federal investigators raided the offices of Feeding Our Future, a competing nonprofit, creating turmoil in federally funded meal programs that are overseen in Minnesota by the education department.

“I think there are a lot of programs out there that will feel like they have nowhere to go,” said Robyn Tousignant, interim chief executive of Partners.

Partners has battled MDE for years. The group’s first application to participate in the federal meals program was denied by the Department of Education in 2016, leading to a lengthy court battle which Partners won; the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled that MDE’s refusal was “arbitrary and capricious”.

The department decided to terminate Partners’ involvement in federal infant nutrition programs in January, after the FBI released search warrants alleging widespread fraud centered on Feeding Our Future. Both nonprofits focused on serving minority communities.

According to the warrants, Partners paid more than $25 million to three contractors who spent “little, if any, money buying food or providing meals for children.” These three contractors also received millions in allegedly fraudulent payments through Feeding Our Future, according to the warrants.

So far, none of Partners’ employees or board members have been charged with a crime. In the lawsuit, the nonprofit said it had not been “identified as a target of the federal criminal investigation.” Previously, Partners said it immediately cut ties with the contractors named in the mandates.

“It would be inappropriate for MDE to comment on ongoing litigation,” MDE spokesman Kevin Burns said in a written statement Friday. “We want to be clear: MDE remains committed to ensuring that young people have access to healthy and nutritious meals. We are working to ensure that any provider organization that previously worked with (Partners) can continue to serve children.”

MDE officials said they did everything they could to protect taxpayers by quickly alerting federal authorities to suspected fraud at Feeding Our Future, but some lawmakers criticized the department for not taking action. stricter measures to limit losses.

Partners “should not be the scapegoat for MDE’s dereliction of duty,” the lawsuit states. “After five administrative proceedings and ensuing delays, this lawsuit is being brought to end the MDE’s abuse of power that ultimately harms the communities that most deserve its help.”

The federal investigation forced Feeding Our Future to shut down in February, leaving more than 100 food sites without a sponsor.

Lafayette Butler-Robinson, a consultant who works with more than 100 daycares, said recently that most of her clients had dropped out of the meal program in recent months because they feared getting caught up in ongoing investigations. She said they now pay for meals out of their own pockets, which some centers say stretches their budget dangerously.

Although the state also allows child care centers to sponsor each other, Butler-Robinson said it’s a daunting process, especially for immigrants who aren’t used to dealing with heavy paperwork. administrative.

“The state isn’t helping,” Butler-Robinson said. “Even though Minnesota is a great state to live in, it’s not a great state when English isn’t your first language. »

Some child care operators who previously worked with Feeding Our Future said MDE officials recently suggested contacting Providers Choice, which has been involved with federal child nutrition programs since 1985.

Lubna Malik, director of Kids Choice in Rochester, recently said she was grateful when an MDE official suggested she contact suppliers after she was left without a sponsor due to the closure of Feeding Our Future.

“Personally, I’m so happy,” Malik said. “We eat halal and they were very flexible in choosing a menu that suits the Somali community.”

In its lawsuit, Partners accuses MDE of engaging in a “vendetta” to direct its customers to vendors, saying the department has made it clear that Partners “is not MDE’s preferred sponsor.”

The lawsuit said Partners’ founders left Providers Choice “because they did not believe Providers Choice adequately served the needs of Minnesota’s ethnic minorities, particularly East African immigrant communities. “.

“Providers Choice declines to comment on any pending litigation except to say that Providers Choice is ready and able to serve Minnesota’s children and child care providers and has the ability to support child care centers in Minnesota. ‘additional approved children who meet the Child and Adult Food Program (CACFP),’ the organization said Friday in a written response to questions.

In a phone interview, Burns said the department did not show “bias” in favor of vendors.

Burns acknowledged that MDE employees recently recommended that meal providers contact Providers Choice if they are looking for a sponsor, but he said the department has also referred providers to five other nonprofits, including YouthPrise, The YES Network and the public school systems of Minneapolis, St. Paul and Osseo.

“We refer people to places that we know have the ability and willingness to consider additional sponsorships,” Burns said. “But there is no inherent bias in how we assist entities seeking sponsorships.”

Partners in Nutrition is asking the courts to issue a temporary restraining order that would allow the St. Paul-based organization to continue its participation in federal child nutrition programs.

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