Lawsuit: State getting between kids and healthier food

A lawsuit claims the Minnesota Department of Education is keeping low-income kids and seniors from getting access to healthier food. The suit alleges the department has applied inconsistent standards, preventing a non-profit, Partners in Nutrition, from helping more than 2,700 kids and seniors.

“We like to feed the kids nutritious, healthy food. And the only way we can afford to have that is to get funding from Partners in Nutrition,” Ali Egan, director of Global Child Care, serving mostly Somali-Americans, told Fox 9. “It’s the only organization that makes it possible for us to get that because…there’s a lot of paperwork that has to be done.”

But Partners in Nutrition does not have approval to provide the funding, and is not providing the funding — despite requesting approval in August 2015, ten months ago.

The issue concerns a federal program, called the Child and Adult Care Food Program, that provides meal subsidies to child and adult day care centers, and allows non-profit groups to help the centers apply for the subsidies. Without the non-profits, many centers aren’t aware of the program, or lack the language and experience to navigate the required paperwork. However, non-profits must first receive approval from the Minnesota Department of Education.

“I would say children and seniors are going hungry because of [the Minnesota Department of Education’s] incompetence. I would also characterize this as bureaucracy on steroids,” Christine Twait, the executive director of Partners in Nutrition, told Fox 9.

Ten months of delays

The Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) initially denied the non-profits’s application due to “concerns” about its finances, and whether it relied too much on federal income. However, the non-profit countered that the program is established to allow non-profits to receive the bulk of their funding from the government.

Partners in Nutrition appealed, and MDE conduct its own investigation, concluding its review process did not follow federal regulations, its process was not consistent with past practices, took significantly longer than regulations require, and that communication was “confusing.”

Despite the findings, the MDE did not approve the non-profit’s request. Instead, MDE provided new financial “methodologies” to determine approval. Partners in Nutrition responded that the new methodologies were unfair, were not applied to other non-profits, but that the organization still satisfied the methodologies.

On June 8, 2016, Partners in Nutrition sued the state.

“I want to feed hungry kids”

Twait, the executive director of Partners in Nutrition, told Fox 9 the non-profit had 73 contracts with day care centers serving mostly low-income minority kids and adults, but that it cannot help them.

“If you think about the number of hours of staff time, the number of documents that have gone back and forth, and for what? To prevent us from feeding hungry kids. And furthermore, to prevent more federal dollars from coming to Minnesota. That doesn’t add up,” Twait told Fox 9.

Twait said her organization remains committed to closing the “nutrition gap,” the difference in the quality of food consumed by low-income minorities, and others. Her organization has been approved to provide food to various metro sites through a different food program, called the Summer Food Service Program.

But Twait said she worries about how minorities eat the other nine months of the year.

“They might be able to serve, for example, ramen noodles and water, for a meal. With the food program, they’re maybe able to contract with a caterer to provide meals that have all of the food groups,” Twait said.

As for one of the centers seeking help from Twait’s non-profit, the director said he hopes the state approves the application. “Not five star hotels. That’s not what we’re looking for here. Milk, cheese, the things that they need, nutritious food,” Egal said.

Minnesota Department of Education Response

In a statement to Fox 9, Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said: “The Minnesota Department of Education is committed to expanding access to food programs to ensure children have access to nutritious meals throughout the day.”

In addition, an MDE spokesperson added that the “multi-site sponsor” application for Partners in Nutrition remains pending. And the official noted that the non-profit has approval to provide food to 19 sites during the summer.