MINNEAPOLIS — After claiming to serve more meals to needy children last summer than any other group in Minnesota, a new nonprofit has been launched by state regulators for breaking the rules, documents show recently. published.
The Youth Leadership Academy, which raised more than $21 million in federal reimbursements for serving 7 million meals last summer, was denied serving school lunches in December — a month before the FBI publicly revealed its massive investigation into child nutrition program fraud in Minnesota. Regulators found the group had seriously mismanaged its finances.
With that denial, the Minnesota Department of Education has now banned or suspended funding for the three top providers in the state that claimed the most summer meals: Youth Leadership Academy in Minneapolis, Feeding Our Future in St. Anthony and Partners in Nutrition in St. Paul.
At the Youth Leadership Academy, also known as Gar Gaar Family Services, Priya Morioka, chief operating officer and chief financial officer, and Khadija Ali, its executive director, declined interview requests.
“As we are now in the midst of an administrative process, we are unable to comment further at this time,” Ali said in a statement.
While the Youth Leadership Academy and Gar Gaar Family Services were not named in unsealed FBI search warrants in January, the organization has multiple ties to Feeding Our Future, which began closing last month after the FBI has accused the group of being part of a “massive fraud scheme involving the embezzlement of at least $48 million. So far, no charges have been filed and the Feeding Our Future frontman denies all wrongdoing.
Two of the founders of the Youth Leadership Academy, Morioka and Martin Mohamed, both operated meal sites for Feeding Our Future in early 2021. Additionally, state records show that the Youth Leadership Academy operated at least in part from a historic Minneapolis mansion at 2722 Park Av. This is the address of a property which, according to FBI search warrants, was purchased with $2.8 million embezzled from the program of meals by the owners of the Safari restaurant, one of the Feeding Our Future sites. Efforts to reach the owners of the Safari restaurant were unsuccessful.
In addition to Morioka and Ali, the Youth Leadership Academy’s board of directors includes Minneapolis chiropractor Zeynep Tuzcu and former Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, who heads Global Minnesota, a Minneapolis nonprofit. Ritchie did not respond to questions.
“I have no role in anything that’s going on,” said Tuzcu, who joined the board in November and was not invited to a board meeting. “I have no idea what happened there.”
A public relations firm representing the Youth Leadership Academy also declined to answer questions, citing “several ongoing actions.”
Gar Gaar Family Services and Youth Leadership Academy were launched in 2020 as schools began to fight the pandemic. In his statement, Ali said the organization’s mission is to “ensure that Somalis and other at-risk communities across the state can access programs, which could also include providing meals to students. “. “Gar gaar” means “help” in Somali.
Last summer, the Youth Leadership Academy was reimbursed for providing 7 million meals, more than three times the number of meals provided by St. Paul’s public schools over the same period.
“Where are these children from? said Ellie Lucas, executive director of Hunger Impact Partners, a Minneapolis advocacy and research organization, adding that 260,000 Minnesota children ages 5 to 18 are eligible for free and reduced-price school meals in 2021.
The summer program peaked in Minnesota during the pandemic. Last summer, providers reported to the state that they distributed 37.3 million meals, compared to 21.9 million meals in 2020 and 3.5 million meals in 2019. Part of that increase is due to schools being able to extend the summer program during the school year amid the pandemic.
“It was curious for me to look at all the organizations that were new to the space. They served high concentrations of children…In my experience, these programs evolve over time,” Lucas said. “Growing up overnight, for me, is a surprise.”
Mohamed said he was not surprised by the state’s action against the Youth Leadership Academy, as he worried about the group’s ability to oversee a large operation when it became the year’s sponsor. last.
“Within three weeks, it became clear to me that I couldn’t work with them, so I left,” said Mohamed, who has a financial background and said he’s helped start more than 60 nonprofits. in Minnesota. “I didn’t like the behavior… They gave me nightmares for months.”
Mohamed declined to give details.
According to state regulators, problems at the Youth Leadership Academy were so widespread and severe that the organization was declared “seriously deficient” – a rare designation that the Department of Education typically only makes a few times a year. year.
The Youth Leadership Academy appealed its denial, but an internal appeals committee upheld the decision on February 25 and gave the organization 60 days to challenge it in the Minnesota Court of Appeals. In a letter barring the group from serving additional meals, regulators cited Youth Leadership for paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to vendors last summer who were not properly licensed or did not have contracts.
One such seller, “The Produce,” received $939,960 in September, two weeks before receiving a state license, according to the Education Department. The company is run by Fahad M. Nur, who was convicted of first-degree burglary in 2011 and released from probation in 2013, according to court records.
Nur did not answer calls or letters left at his home and business.
The Department of Education, which oversees the state’s children’s nutritional meal programs, faulted the Youth Leadership Academy for packing food in bags that did not meet federal nutrition and safety rules. mismanaging his finances, failing to keep receipts for all transactions, failing to withhold at least $210,000 in payroll taxes and other errors. In one day in August, the organization reported “miscellaneous debits” of $650,019.
The non-profit organization was also cited for offering to serve meals at venues already operating with other sponsors, prompting complaints. Youth Leadership was trying to steal these sites from other groups. The organization also failed to demonstrate that it was meeting an “unmet need,” the department said.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Summer Food Service Program aims to provide children in low-income areas with free meals when school is closed. A second program called the Child and Adult Care Food Program reimburses organizations for providing up to two meals a day and a snack in non-school settings, such as daycares.
Mohamed said he was disappointed with the failure of the group as he started the Youth Leadership Academy after becoming convinced that the Somali community should create their own network of meal providers instead of relying on outsiders such as Feeding Our Future, led by a white woman.
Feeding Our Future executive director Aimee Bock said Mohamed shut down his site shortly after carrying out a surprise inspection which found very few children were being fed, despite the site’s claim he was feeding about 1,700 children per day in March.
“It’s alarming to see no traffic,” Bock said. “We walked in and couldn’t find any attendance records or anything.”
Bock said she did not report her concerns to the education department because Mohamed had never sought reimbursement for any meals he might have served at the site. She said Mohamed’s group, the US African Chamber of Commerce, pulled out in April after expressing surprise at an inspection without notice or oversight from state regulators.
Mohamed disputed Bock’s account, saying his decision to shut down his site and start over with a new band had nothing to do with Bock’s visit. He said he decided Feeding Our Future was not the right place to set up a program to connect Somali food vendors with Somali children.
“It was clear to me that this organization was going to let the Somali community down,” Mohamed said. “And that’s exactly what happened.”
The Youth Leadership Academy has grown rapidly, from zero summer meals in 2020 to 7 million meals last year at sites across the Twin Cities and in Faribault, Rochester and near St. Cloud.
The Youth Leadership Academy is registered with the IRS, but has not registered with the Attorney General’s Office, as required by charities soliciting donations. No tax form 990, which tax-exempt nonprofit organizations must file, was available.
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