Restaurateurs were the alleged leaders of the 47-strong ring./Photo: Shutterstock
A group of restaurateurs and caterers in Minnesota have been accused of creating a program that raked in $250 million from a federal program to feed children during the pandemic.
Federal law enforcement officials say the scam is the largest pandemic relief scam they have seen to date.
The individuals were part of a 47-strong ring that was capitalizing on efforts early in the pandemic to feed underprivileged children who might otherwise have received free or reduced-price meals through the federal school feeding program.
With schools and dining halls closed due to COVID-19, restaurants were invited to use their otherwise unused kitchens to provide the food, with reimbursement coming from the school feeding program, officially known as the Federal Child Nutrition Program (FCNP).
The catch was that any restaurant or commercial kitchen wishing to participate needed a “sponsor,” a party already authorized by the Minnesota Department of Education to participate in the FCNP. Typically, the sponsor assumed an administrative role, directing reimbursements from the Ministry of Education to a commercial kitchen. In return, the sponsor typically received a 10% or 15% commission.
One of those sponsors was Feeding Our Future, a nonprofit charity run by a woman named Aimee Bock. She was also the owner of a Minnesota restaurant called Safari.
Bock has made Feeding Our Future a sponsor of Safari. According to the US Department of Justice, she has also had the organization sponsor a variety of other dining establishments throughout Minnesota, including Brava Restaurant & Café, S&S Catering in the Twin Cities, Empire Cuisine and Market near Savage; and Haji’s Kitchen, near St. Anthony.
When Feeding Our Future ran out of restaurants to sponsor, it started inventing locations, according to the Justice Department. When the indictment was announced, it claimed that Bock and her employees used a website that had been accessed at a certain point in time www.listofrandomnames.com to find identities.
Overall, Feeding Our Future sponsored 250 locations across Minnesota, and the nonprofit’s revenue grew from $3.4 million in 2019 to $200 million in 2021, Justice said in its announcement.
In addition to charging locations that didn’t actually exist, Feeding Our Future made false claims about the performance of actual kitchens, according to Justice. It is alleged that Bock forwarded reimbursement funds to other participants, but also squeezed them for bribes.
“This was an outrageous plan of astounding proportions,” said Andrew Luger, US Attorney for the Minnesota District of the Justice Department, during a news conference announcing the indictments.
“These defendants took advantage of a program aimed at providing nutritious food to children in need during the COVID-19 pandemic,” he continued. “Instead, they put their own greed first and stole more than a quarter billion dollars in federal funds to buy luxury cars, homes, jewelry and seaside resorts abroad.”
These purchases included real estate investments in Kenya and Turkey.
The 47 defendants are charged with conspiracy, wire fraud, money laundering and bribery.
Because of the large number of defendants, no effort was made to reach the 47.
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