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Big Lake woman pleads guilty to exploiting child nutrition program

(The Center Square) – A Big Lake, Minnesota woman has pleaded guilty to her role in the $250 million fraud scheme that exploited a federally-funded child nutrition program during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Court documents say Sharon Denise Ross, 53, was the executive director of House of Refuge Twin Cities, a St. Paul-based non-profit which she enrolled in the Federal Child Nutrition Program under the sponsorship of Feeding Our Future and Sponsor A.

Ross claimed House of Refuge operated distribution sites at a dozen locations throughout the Twin Cities that served food from a vendor called Brava Café, a restaurant in Minneapolis run by Hanna Marakegn. Between September 2021 through February 2022, Ross falsely claimed to be serving thousands of children each day at her House of Refuge sites.

In total, Ross fraudulently claimed to have served nearly 900,000 meals and received about $2.4 million in fraudulent Federal Child Nutrition Program funds.

Ross allegedly distributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to family members and used the rest of the money to fund her lifestyle, including vacations to Florida and Las Vegas, a suite at a Minnesota Timberwolves game, and a house in Willernie, Minnesota.

Other alleged purchases using the scheme’s proceeds included: 

  • $575,000 for a single-family home in Savage.
  • $335,000 for a townhouse in Burnsville.
  • $79,000 for a 2021 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited.
  • A 2021 Porsche Macan.
  • A $65,000 2021 GMC Sierra pickup.
  • A $47,000 2021 Nissan Murano.
  • An $80,000 2022 Tesla Model Y.

Ross is the 17th defendant to plead guilty to charges relating to the Feeding Our Future fraud scheme. A sentencing hearing will be scheduled at a later time.

From May 2020 through January 2022, federal authorities say three businesses – ThinkTechAct Foundation, Empire Cuisine & Market, and Empire Enterprises – stole and and laundered at least $30 million from the Federal Child Nutrition Program meant to feed hungry children.

Court documents say the scheme’s proceeds bought 14 properties.

Court documents say Feeding Our Future, a St. Antony-based fake nonprofit, reported $42.7 million in meals disbursed in 2020 and $197 million in 2021. The nonprofit would contract with the three above businesses as food vendors appearing to feed hungry children, but in reality, would shift the money via shell companies.


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