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Fraud Investigation in Food Aid Puts Focus on Role of Nonprofits

Minnesota first approved Feeding Our Future as a sponsor in 2018. In its first years, the group oversaw only a few feeding sites — and, at times, seemed to struggle with overseeing itself.

In February 2020, for instance, the I.R.S. revoked the group’s nonprofit status after it failed to file an annual report for three years. (Feeding Our Future says that status was later reinstated, but the I.R.S. still lists it as revoked.)

In other filings, Feeding Our Future said it had a three-member board to provide outside oversight of its finances. But the man listed as the board’s president from 2018 to 2020, Ben Stayberg, a bartender and electrician, said he had been tricked into taking the job and had “absolutely nothing” to do with overseeing the organization.

“I had a friend, she was like, ‘Will you just sign, put your name on there?’” he said in an interview. “I was like, ‘All right.’” Mr. Stayberg declined to give the friend’s name.

When the pandemic hit, Feeding Our Future’s world changed.

School was out. Children were hungry. Starting in 2020, Congress poured money into the feeding programs and allowed the Agriculture Department to waive rules that had been put in place after previous scandals to make sure states watched the watchdogs. For instance, state officials no longer had to visit feeding sites in person to see whether they were doing what the paperwork said.

After that, Feeding Our Future began to grow rapidly, adding dozens of new sites to its network. Some of them were start-up nonprofits that had sprung up during the pandemic and never served food before.

From 2019 to 2021, the number of children in Feeding Our Future’s network increased to about 400,000, from about 4,000, according to state records. The revenue flowing through its network increased to $197 million from $3.5 million.

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