Globe2Go, the digital newspaper replica of The Globe and Mail

Company linked to Calgary E. coli outbreak pursued ambitious expansion

NATHAN VANDERKLIPPE ALANNA SMITH DAVE McGINN

Daycare company at times made outsized marketing claims as it embarked on a major growth plan in Texas

Fueling Brains Academy was a gold-standard daycare. Or so Chelsea Maksimovic thought. The Calgary parent said she was impressed by the operator’s “left brain” and “right brain” instruction. Red Seal-certified chefs were responsible for its menus, full of foods aimed at powering children’s minds. “We just felt like it was a 10 out of 10,” Ms. Maksimovic said. “Also, the cost was so much more than everywhere else that we really believed this was a luxury, high-end daycare where everything is well thought out. It’s the best teachers. It’s the best food. It’s the best curriculum.”

Her toddler daughter began attending Fueling Brains’ West 85th location in southwest Calgary in August, 2021, for roughly $1,700 a month. Ms. Maksimovic said her child made friends quickly and talked frequently about the teachers she loved. She came home hungry sometimes, but Ms. Maksimovic put it down to picky eating.

Then the daycare’s kitchen, operated by Fueling Minds, a separate company run by the same owners, was implicated in a devastating E. coli outbreak. Hundreds of children fell ill, including Ms. Maksimovic’s daughter, who spent nearly two weeks in and out of the hospital.

Her daughter was eventually cleared to recover at home. That’s when the family’s stress turned to sadness. “She’s horribly lonely and she misses her friends,” Ms. Maksimovic said in September.

Alberta Health Services declared the E. coli outbreak over on Oct. 31, roughly eight weeks after the original cluster of cases was confirmed. The illnesses were connected to six Fueling Brains locations and five other child-care sites in Calgary, all of which sourced the food they served their pupils from the same Fueling Minds catering kitchen. Nearly 500 people, mostly children, were infected, making the incident one of the largest outbreaks of pediatric E. coli ever recorded in Canada.

A public-health investigation into the E. coli outbreak has focused on the catering kitchen, which is believed to have served contaminated food. In September, the city of Calgary charged Fueling Minds with the bylaw offence of providing food services to five daycares it does not own without the correct business licence. The Alberta government has announced a panel to review food safety in kitchens that serve daycares, and the Calgary Police Service said in September that its child-abuse unit is investigating.

Reporting by The Globe and Mail shows that, in the years leading up to the outbreak, Fueling Brains pursued expansion, both in Canada and the United States, and at times made outsized marketing claims.

Even as it cared for thousands of Canadian children during the pandemic, the company embarked on a major growth plan in Texas, where it told school boards that its approach would bring high-tech results, in part by using a device that, it said, could read a child’s brain waves. People who worked for the company described an organization whose capabilities sometimes struggled to match its ambitions, likening the company to a fast-running startup.

Fueling Brains’ founders did not respond to requests for interviews. Instead, the company replied to detailed questions with a statement. “Many of the alleged facts and bases for your questions are not factually accurate or truthful,” it said.

“Our innovative, science-based learning system has earned recognition for its effectiveness in achieving educational goals,” the company added. “Consequently, it has been embraced by numerous school districts across North America.”

The company, originally called Kids U, was founded by Anil Karim and Faisal Alimohd in 2012. Mr. Alimohd is a chartered accountant who graduated from the Haskayne School of Business at the University of Calgary. He became the company’s chief financial officer. Mr. Karim had an interest in education and strong ideas about better ways to prepare preschool children for lives of learning.

The company announced on social media in September, 2022, that it was rebranding from Kids U to Fueling Brains Academy.

“Our unique approach to educating and building the whole brain for lifelong success has seen us grow exponentially,” the announcement said. “With growth, naturally, comes change.”

By the time of the outbreak, the company website said Fueling Brains had expanded to nine campuses in Alberta, with around 2,000 children attending. And it was operating its central kitchen under the Fueling Minds brand.

As Fueling Brains changed its name and increased its footprint in Canada, the company was also in the midst of a major expansion in Texas.

Texas is a second home for Mr. Karim. He holds a U.S. passport and has family ties to the Houston area. When he decided to pursue a doctorate in education, he enrolled at the University of St. Thomas, a Catholic university in Houston.

He graduated in 2021, according to a university document. Then he turned his entrepreneurial attention to his surroundings. Fueling Brains had already formulated its educational system in Canada. With a white Toyota Tundra and a salesman’s enthusiasm, Mr. Karim began to criss-cross Texas, looking for buyers.

On April 7, 2021, he took a virtual stage in front of the board of trustees of Mission Consolidated Independent School District. The school district reaches north from the Rio Grande in Texas’s south, along the Mexican border.

Mr. Karim said he had a way to elevate Mission’s students to the level of peers in the country’s wealthiest corners.

“The children here come from very different backgrounds,” he told the trustees in a video conference that is archived online. “And can you imagine us giving such a population so much energy in cutting-edge stuff – that you may see in California or San Francisco or New York – and bringing that here?”

Joining Mr. Karim for the presentation was a man who boasted the academic bona fides to vouch for Fueling Brains: Antonio Corrales, who introduced himself as an associate professor of educational leadership at University of Houston Clear Lake. Two former Fueling Brains employees said Mr. Corrales was an integral part of the company’s expansion in Texas, compensated with a substantial share of revenues from contracts it inked with school districts. Mr. Corrales did not respond to requests for comment.

The problem with traditional early childhood education, Mr. Corrales told the trustees, is that teachers have no way to measure “brain gaps” in children’s development. “When those brain gaps are not closed within zero to six years old, guess what, those brain gaps stay there forever,” he said.

Fueling Brains, the men said, had a solution – a system they said could gather “brain data” on 48 different skills and abilities, then crunch that information with an internal algorithm.

The men showed trustees an image of children wearing a plastic device on their heads, like a virtual reality headset. The device cost US$60,000, Mr. Karim said. He claimed it was “able to read the level of brain development.” Repeated readings over time can “show how we rewire brains,” he explained.

The two former employees who spoke with The Globe said they had never seen the device in operation. The Globe is not naming the employees because they fear reprisals from the company

“We were actually commissioned by the government of Canada,” Mr. Karim added. He displayed a presentation slide that said the company had received a Scientific Research and Experimental Design Grant, an apparent reference to the federal Scientific Research and Experimental Development tax credit. (The Canada Revenue Agency said it can’t provide details on recipients through that program.)

Fueling Brains opened academies in a half-dozen elementary schools in the Mission Consolidated district, which also uses the company’s curriculum in a number of other school programs. Mission superintendent Carol Perez did not respond to a request for comment. In online documents, the district boasts of the “important innovation” Fueling Brains has brought to its preschool and kindergarten students.

At another Fueling Brains location, in Missouri City, Tex., Catherine Friedmann was hired to prepare food for the company’s young pupils. She had run a French tearoom in Los Angeles before the pandemic forced her to close.

Not long after she was hired, she said, her new bosses started making requests. Once, she recalled, Mr. Alimohd, the CFO, asked if she could use the kitchen at the facility – with a single fridge and virtually no pantry space – to feed up to 250 children. The company was planning to expand its child care offerings. Another time, she said, Mr. Alimohd suggested keeping food supplies in an electrical room. That room was also used to store cleaning supplies.

Ms. Friedmann refused both requests, and the plan to feed 250 children did not materialize. She has since cut ties with Fueling Brains.

Fueling Brains managed its growth in part by sending work overseas. Workers in Pakistan and India designed company materials and, by video call, trained teachers in North America.

“It was a global company,” said Monica Ruiz-Mills, who helped Fueling Brains with curriculum implementation in Texas last year. “It seemed to be working.”

Fueling Brains signed contracts with school districts across Texas. But it struggled. In 2022, it lost contracts with roughly half the Texas districts it served, the two former employees said.

One school district in San Marcos, Tex., pays about US$600,000 a year for the Fueling Brains prekindergarten curriculum. That’s roughly equivalent to what it pays for its entire kindergarten-to-Grade-8 reading and math curriculum, said Michael Cardona, the San Marcos superintendent. The district has decided to end its relationship with the company.

Fueling Brains is “super expensive,” Mr. Cardona said. Those who worked for the company struggle to understand how it could have been involved in a crisis like the one that unfolded in Alberta. “They really do pride themselves with maintaining safe and clean environments,” Ms. Ruiz-Mills said. But, she added, “They were still a startup company.”

In Canada, Fueling Brains had aspirations beyond educating and feeding the kids in its Calgary facilities. It also wanted a say in the shape of Canadian early childhood education. When Alberta set out to update its child-care regulations, the company provided closed-door feedback on the proposed changes to a provincial task force, according to Robert Schuett, a Calgary lawyer with Goodfellow & Schuett Law, who represented Fueling Brains at the time.

The Fueling Brains founders hoped to influence federal policy, too. Mr. Schuett said he spent more than a year lobbying Ottawa on behalf of the company as the Liberal government drafted its new child-care plan.

“The federal government was coming in with new policies, and they wanted to be part of that discussion,” Mr. Schuett said.

Kent Hehr, a former Liberal member of parliament, is vice-president of strategic partnerships and growth at Fueling Brains. His mother, Judy, is the company’s director of early and child-care services.

Those political overtures have now been overshadowed by the Calgary outbreak, which hospitalized 38 children and one adult with hemolytic uremic syndrome. Eight of those patients required peritoneal dialysis, a treatment for kidney failure. All have since been released from the hospital. There were no reported deaths, Alberta Health Services said in an update on Oct. 31.

Alberta Health Services inspection reports identified a series of issues over three years with the Fueling Minds kitchen’s cleanliness. The most recent set of problems were documented after the initial outbreak in September, when inspectors found that food was being transported without temperature control for longer than 90 minutes. They also noted a “sewer gas smell” in the facility, and both living and dead cockroaches in the food preparation area.

On the Fueling Minds website, which is now offline, the company said each meal was prepared fresh daily and “always at the right temperature.”

Inspectors determined that the likely source of the outbreak was meatloaf prepared in the kitchen, but they have not been able to say how the food was contaminated.

Keith Edwards, whose two children attended Fueling Brains in Calgary, said there was a quiet suspicion among parents that the daycare operator may have had skewed priorities when it rebranded during the COVID-19 pandemic. But his kids were happy.

Now he wonders whether he was missing something. “Where were they using our money? … Were they underinvesting in the operations of this kitchen, in terms of staff training, equipment, maintenance?” he asked. “Knowing that perhaps they were distracted, or focusing on things that were completely separate from running a daycare as really central to their mission, is concerning.”

FRONT PAGE

en-ca

2023-11-21T08:00:00.0000000Z

2023-11-21T08:00:00.0000000Z

https://globe2go.pressreader.com/article/281595245272024

Globe and Mail