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Minnesota education department head defends state's role in flagging nutrition program fraud

Department of Education Commissioner Heather Mueller told senators that the agency raised red flags to federal officials in 2020 and worked with the FBI on its investigation into nonprofit Feeding our Future.

Heather Mueller headshot.jpg
Minnesota Department of Education Commissioner Heather Mueller.
Contributed / Minnesota Department of Education
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ST. PAUL — The head of the Minnesota Department of Education on Monday, April 4, defended the state's actions in raising red flags about a nonprofit under federal investigation for fraud.

In testimony to the Minnesota Senate Education Committee, Commissioner Heather Mueller said the department became concerned about improper spending by Feeding our Future, a nonprofit that provided meals to needy children, in 2020.

And regulators there questioned nonprofit leaders and reported concerns to federal officials at that time.

St. Anthony, Minnesota-based nonprofit Feeding our Future closed its doors in February after several of its employees came under investigation by the FBI.

The agency has alleged that people involved with the group took advantage of looser rules during the pandemic and improperly spent tens of millions of dollars meant to help provide meals to needy children.


Former employees and people who work at food distribution sites connected with Feeding our Future have not been charged in connection with the alleged overpayments. But court records indicate that federal funds were used for personal purchases like luxury cars and travel expenses.

Mueller said the Department of Education began working with the FBI on its investigation into the nonprofit in 2021. And it pressed for tougher consequences for the group despite facing a lawsuit from Feeding our Future.

"That is the primary reason that we are here today, because our team was able to identify within a month that there was exponential growth that could not be explained," Mueller said. "We raised flags of concern."

Mueller also told the Senate panel that the department is not under federal investigation as part of the nonprofit's improper spending.

"We're sitting here because our process worked," Mueller said. "We were able to identify the fraud, or the alleged fraud, at Feeding our Future."

Leaders of the education panel on Monday said they planned to hold additional hearings about the department's handling of the nonprofit. And Chair Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, called on several additional department leaders to be on-hand to testify.

"Very large fraud and the fact that other states it didn't happen, so we're trying to get to the point where we can find out why that is," Chamberlain said. "Something went seriously wrong."

Sen. Steve Cwodzinski, DFL-Eden Prairie, credited the department for raising concerns about the potential fraud as leaders there were also managing transitions to distance and hybrid learning amid the pandemic.


"The whole system was being tested and I imagine at the Department of Education your phones and emails and computers were exploding every single day with a lot of questions and through all that, the system worked," he said.

The call for an investigation comes after reports that Sen. Omar Fateh carried legislation for a group that endorsed him and a campaign volunteer was convicted in federal court.

Follow Dana Ferguson on Twitter  @bydanaferguson , call 651-290-0707 or email

Dana Ferguson is a Minnesota Capitol Correspondent for Forum News Service. Ferguson has covered state government and political stories since she joined the news service in 2018, reporting on the state's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the divided Statehouse and the 2020 election.
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