Feeding Our Future director blames education department for food aid probe

a woman sitting and wearing a mask
Aimee Bock in the Feeding Our Futures offices in St. Anthony, Minn., on Monday.
Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

This story comes to you from Sahan Journal, a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to covering Minnesota's immigrants and communities of color. Sign up for their free newsletter to receive their stories in your inbox.

It has been nearly two weeks since federal agents raided Aimee Bock’s house, the nonprofit she runs, and several companies associated with it. This week, the executive director of Feeding our Future denied allegations of fraud in connection with federal food aid programs and gave her side of the story in an in-depth interview with Sahan Journal.

Three FBI search warrant affidavits, unsealed last month in federal court, allege that Bock participated in a wide scheme defrauding the federal government of millions of dollars earmarked for feeding underserved children. 

On Monday morning, roughly a dozen people huddled in Feeding Our Future’s St. Anthony headquarters as Bock and her lawyer, Kenneth Udoibok, spoke at length about the allegations. 

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

The FBI alleges that Feeding Our Future, which Bock founded in 2017 and where she serves as executive director, mishandled tens of millions of dollars of federal child nutrition money. No charges have been filed against Bock, Feeding our Future, or anyone else named in the search warrants.

People under criminal investigation such as Bock are often reluctant to speak publicly. But both Bock and Udoibok said the circumstances of the Feeding Our Future federal investigation are unusual. They specifically take issue with how federal authorities made the allegations against Bock and others public before making any criminal charges or indictments in the case. 

Udoibok called the disclosure of allegations without making charges or indictments grossly unfair to Bock. 

“Because of that, my client is maligned,” Udoibok said. “She has to defend herself against the search warrants, and the search warrants took liberties, significant liberties, factually.”

Udoibok said that after seizing scores of documents during last month’s multiple raids, the FBI now has all of the relevant information. He predicted that Bock and Feeding Our Future will ultimately not be charged or indicted. 

“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.”

At the center of the investigation are claims about how the child nutrition program works and how the participants allegedly manipulated the money for their own purposes. Here’s what Bock said she wants people to know. 

How it all began

Between 2018 and 2021, Feeding Our Future accessed $244 million from two U.S. Department of Agriculture programs: the Child and Adult Care Food Program and the Summer Food Service Program. Together, they allocated more than $4 billion a year to feed 7 million children across the country. Between 2018 and 2021, Feeding Our Future grew rapidly in accessing this money, from $307,000 the first year to $3.5 million in 2019, $43 million in 2020, and $198 million last year. 

At the time of last month’s FBI raids, Feeding Our Future worked with 200 nonprofits—usually independent daycare organizations and afterschool programs—with the stated purpose, Bock said, of feeding 100,000 Minnesota children each day. Feeding Our Future works as an administrator of this federal money for the smaller nonprofits by accepting and submitting their applications to the Minnesota Department of Education, which acts as an intermediary between Feeding Our Future and the federal government.  

But the FBI alleges that Feeding Our Future and several subcontractors misappropriated at least $48 million of the nearly quarter-billion dollars it received from the federal government. 

Instead of spending this money on feeding children, the search warrants allege nearly two dozen people defrauded the government and spent it on personal items like luxury cars, expensive real estate, and lavish trips.

The FBI allegations boil down to this: Bock’s organization obtained millions of federal child nutrition dollars and funneled them to people who spent the money however they wanted. What does Bock have to say about this?

To start, Bock calls this understanding of how the child nutrition program works a “mischaracterization.” 

Bock: People seem to believe I give them the money and then it’s sort of the honor system to go purchase food. In fact, it’s the opposite. They purchase the food. They feed the children. They submit the documentation to Feeding Our Future. Our team processes and reviews it. If it’s approved, it’s submitted to the state for payment, and they then are essentially refunded or reimbursed their costs.

To get reimbursed, Bock said the nonprofits must submit documentation to Feeding Our Future, including the menu of meals they’ve served, the number of meals served, receipts for the meals, and, sometimes, attendance records of the children served. Then, Feeding Our Future reviews these records and decides whether they meet federal guidelines. Bock asserts that her organization goes beyond federal requirements by doing things like obtaining backup receipts from the food supplier from which the nonprofit purchased the food. This is to ensure that nonprofits are serving the right food to qualify for the federal money.

Bock: If we have an invoice that just simply says ‘breakfast,’ that doesn’t tell me enough. If you’re buying doughnuts, that doesn’t count. I need to see that it was cereal, that it was oatmeal, that it was something within the parameters of the meal requirements.

Sometimes, this prompts Feeding Our Future to reject nonprofits’ attempts to access child nutrition program money. Bock said that in 2021, Feeding Our Future completely denied 10 to 15 applications from nonprofits and partially denied countless others. Feeding Our Future may reject a nonprofit’s application for reimbursement if the documentation shows it didn’t provide enough complete meals—for example if it didn’t buy enough milk for the number of children it said it served, Bock said.

But what about the fraud allegations, then? Again, the FBI alleges several people used this money to fund their lavish lifestyles. 

Bock says the smaller nonprofits that serve meals to kids must buy food from a food distributor. Most of the time it is a for-profit organization like a grocery store or restaurant. Bock says whatever the for-profit food distributors do with their profit margins is outside of her authority. Furthermore, Bock says most of the people targeted in the search warrants work for smaller, immigrant-owned food distributors, but that most of the child nutrition money that flows through Feeding Our Future actually gets spent on food from large chain stores. 

Bock: Most of the folks named in the search warrants are at the for-profit level. We are in charge of monitoring our nonprofit partners. They can purchase food from our small local grocery stores, from our halal markets, and those are the folks that are being attacked. Sam’s Club, Costco, and Aldi get by far the largest chunk of the money. Why is nobody asking them where their profit margins went? Why are we only looking at the profit margins of our small minority-owned businesses? 

Again, the meals are reimbursed. I’m not sure how they would determine that the money came from the child nutrition program, because by the time food distributors get the money, it’s their general fund money. These are for-profit entities, and what they do with their money is outside the scope of what Feeding Our Future manages.

Udoibok: Feeding Our Future and Ms. Bock only paid based on receipts and evidence of service performed. Her role does not go beyond that. She is required to do auditing and inspection of sites three times a year. She did that a minimum of once a month. She’s met all her burden under the law. Her payments went out after she had made the spot checks required under law that the portfolio services were performed. The law does not require her to sit at 200 centers and count the kids. I wish that the government had taken that into consideration when making this allegation.

The FBI says the number of children that some of Feeding Our Future’s subcontractors claim to have fed is simply unbelievable. For example, Safari Restaurant and Event Center claimed to feed 5,000 children a day in summer 2020—more kids than attend Minnesota’s largest high school. Stigma Free International claimed to feed 2,000 children each day in Wilmar, a city where 5,000 children live. Bock says these claims are legitimate, and adds that she personally witnessed subcontractors feeding thousands of children.

Bock: It’s important to paint the context of the time that those meals were served. Those meals were served in the months immediately following the pandemic. Schools were shut down. Parents were out of work. Everything was frozen. I mean, we were in lockdown. Coupled that with the fact that it was the week of George Floyd’s murder. We had no grocery stores on Lake Street. We had no convenience stores. They were down to a couple of gas stations. That site (Safari Restaurant) was so busy that at one point they had a waiver for traffic because the streets were being blocked with families coming to get meals for their children. As we’ve returned to normal, now their size is not that large. It has scaled back significantly, but during that time, they were one of the few sources of food in that area.

The other reality is due to the COVID pandemic, the USDA issued waivers that allow parent pickup as well as home delivery. Our Wilmar site was delivering meals to children that live outside of Wilmar. Because as we see time and time again, our more-populated areas get the services, but those in outstate Minnesota, those outside of Wilmar, don’t get the help they need. So we had parents driving in, we had staff driving to houses to deliver food.

The search warrants detail two allegations of fraud against Bock. The first alleges she received a $310,000 kickback from a co-owner of Safari Restaurant for giving the restaurant federal child nutrition money. What does Bock say about this? 

UdoibokI was a prosecutor before. If the allegation was there is a deposit of $310,000 in the account that is unaccounted for, that’s a fair, objective statement. But when you say it’s a kickback, the use of the word is not supported by any evidence.

Bock said the $310,000 was for the purchase of a childcare center called The Learning Journey that she founded years ago but never got around to opening. The Safari Restaurant co-owner who purchased it has experience running childcare organizations, Bock said. 

Bock: Unfortunately, [the Learning Journey] was something that took a decade or more to build. I was not in a position to just go buy one, so I slowly acquired throughout the years the stuff that I would need. By the time I submitted the application, the pandemic hit. That left me in a position where I was opening a business to serve children who were confined to their homes. 

There are people that have better relationships and more of an ability to grow. They have experience in childcare ownership. They approached me about purchasing the center. That was happening simultaneously as Feeding Our Future was growing and needed my full-time attention. We were growing in site numbers, we were growing in staff size. So when I was approached about selling it, it was a relief. We did market analysis. We compared other centers that were sold during that same timeframe to make sure that it was a fair market value, given location, size, condition, all of that. The feds have the purchase agreement, they have it all. If they would have asked, they would have known it was from a sale of an independent business.

So Abdulkadir Nur Saleh, the co-owner of Safari Restaurant, purchased the childcare center? He was going to open a childcare center?

Bock: Yes. I believe it was his company that purchased it, and they’ve owned childcare centers in the past. 

Did Abdulkadir purchase the daycare center through a realtor?

Bock: We spoke with our respective attorneys and reviewed the documents, but no, it wasn’t through a realtor. It wasn’t real estate. It was just the business and the equipment, the stuff inside of it.

Last week, the landlord of the Burnsville building listed as The Learning Journey filed an eviction lawsuit against Bock and others, alleging $30,000 in unpaid rent since October 2021. Bock told Sahan Journal during the interview that she hadn’t seen the lawsuit yet and reiterated that she no longer owns the daycare business listed at the address.

The FBI’s second fraud allegation against Bock says she stole approximately $600,000 from the child nutrition program using a shell company controlled by her boyfriend. What’s her response to this allegation?

Bock paid the money to Handy Helpers, a company run by her boyfriend, which she said did extensive and ongoing remodeling on roughly 10,000 square feet of office space in Feeding Our Future’s St. Anthony headquarters. Bock said the decision to hire her boyfriend’s company for the work came in a bidding process that saw three or four companies bid for the job. She said Feeding Our Future’s board of directors signed off on the project. Bock said she wasn’t part of the decision to hire her boyfriend.

Udoibok: ‘Stolen,’ that’s another objection. If the government said in an affidavit, ‘Judge, there’s $600,000 from Feeding Our Future to a company run by her boyfriend,’ they would still get the warrant. Even if they want to say it’s inappropriate to hire your boyfriend to renovate your office and pay him this amount of money, I’ll take that. But to say ‘stole’? If it’s a conflict of interest, that’s a whole different story. Is that a criminal act? No. But the Board approved it.

Bock: That language in particular triggers me, because he is one of the hardest-working people I know. To see the system discredit his work and the work of his company and team is disgusting. They bid on a job. We paid a fair market price. We actually got additional services beyond the scope of what was contracted, but that money was spent legally within the realms of the program. This is a tired, worn-out building. When we moved in here, it was in dire need of repairs just to be functional again. It started immediately after we signed our lease, which I believe was in 2019 or 2020. I don’t recall the date off the top of my head. It’s still ongoing.

It consisted of a kitchen upgrade, which is still in process. All of the rooms needed holes patched, ceiling tiles replaced, new flooring. We had to build out offices. That lobby was not there. Our program support room, where we’ve got cubicles, was just open. All of that had to be built up from the ground. Floor leveling that had to be done. It’s been an expansive, ongoing multi-year project. 

Child nutrition programs include money for administration and for maintenance, because you have to be able to sustain a business. The federal guidelines say we can spend up to 15 percent of the money this way. Feeding Our Future breaks down to 10 percent. We have to be able to operate, and we can’t operate if we don’t have a space. I can tell you with 100 percent confidence, all of that money was spent in accordance with the regulations surrounding child nutrition programs.

The search warrant alleges Bock’s boyfriend spent some of this money on a Las Vegas trip where he paid $21,000 on a rental car, $9,000 at Caesar’s Palace, $6,700 at Gucci, and $3,500 at Louis Vuitton.

Bock: I don’t know what he spent it on when he was there. I know he went to Vegas. I was not there. I was at a cabin with my children and my parents in northern Minnesota for the week. Again, that falls into the line of what these for-profit companies are doing is outside of the scope of what Feeding Our Future can mandate. Regardless of whether he’s my boyfriend, I have no say. I don’t get to call my electrician and say, ‘Hey, I know you profited off of the work you did for me, how are you spending the money?’ I don’t get to call the Sam’s Clubs and Costcos that have gotten money for the food and say, ‘What are you buying with your profit? Are you planning to go on vacation? Because if you are, I might get raided.’

Does Feeding Our Future have a conflict of interest policy?

Bock: Absolutely, and they are approved by the state. Anytime there’s a conflict of interest, the people involved in the conflict are removed from the decision.

Since Bock insists she’s innocent, what does she believe to be the motive for the investigation? 

Bock and her attorney accuse the Minnesota Department of Education of having an ax to grind against Feeding Our Future. For one, they allege the state department fed the FBI “bad information.” That “bad information” is that Feeding Our Future grew too fast and that the number of children it reported feeding was unrealistic. MDE did not respond to requests to comment for this story before press time.

That said, the fraud allegations actually come from the FBI. Bock and Udoibok stopped short of alleging the FBI conducted a bad investigation, and instead argue that the probe is “incomplete” and that it was disclosed to the public too early in the process. As a result of the raids last month, the FBI obtained accounting documents that Bock and Udoibok say will vindicate her and Feeding Our Future.

Bock: I think the feds are acting on bad intel. I think that bad intel was intentionally provided by the Department of Education. 

The allegations listed in the search warrants, however, come from the FBI, and not MDE, after weeks of investigations into bank accounts and surveillance of several food sites. Are Bock and Udoibok accusing the FBI of conducting a shoddy investigation? 

Udoibok: No. We’re saying that MDE fed the federal government with bad information. And what is that information? That Feeding Our Future grew too fast. That the number of kids fed seemed unrealistic. The FBI didn’t have enough time to investigate. They didn’t finish the investigation before shutting the system down and publicizing it. And my conclusion is, the reason why they didn’t care about the impact of that decision, is because the centers are run by immigrants and the beneficiaries of the food are also immigrants and poor people. That’s my opinion.