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Minnesotans interviewed to serve on Feeding Our Future trial

Kelly Smith, Star Tribune on

Published in News & Features

The first criminal trial in the sprawling Feeding Our Future case began Monday, questioning more than a dozen potential jurors about whether they could be impartial in the high-profile federal meal fraud case.

In all, 1,000 Minnesotans from across the state had been summoned by mail for the case, more than usual because of the publicity surrounding the scandal — one of the biggest fraud cases in the state, prosecutors have said.

By Monday, the pool of potential jurors had been narrowed to about 350 people — about four or five times the usual amount in a case like this.

No jurors were seated Monday. One by one, more than a dozen Minnesotans were questioned by U.S. District Judge Nancy Brasel in the downtown Minneapolis federal courthouse for about seven hours, including how much news coverage of the Feeding Our Future investigation they had seen, read or heard about since news of the FBI investigation broke in January 2022.

The potential jurors were asked at least 26 questions about their life and opinions, including their feelings about Islam, Muslims or people with East African backgrounds, particularly Somalia, given that a number of the witnesses and defendants are from or have connections to East Africa. Most of the potential jurors interviewed were white and from the Twin Cities metro area.

The prospective jurors were asked whether they're familiar with the meal programs at the center of the case, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to reimburse nonprofits, schools and daycares for feeding low-income children after school and during the summer. Brasel also asked if they had any connection to the USDA or Minnesota Department of Education — which oversaw the free meal programs in the state — or if anyone they knew had ever received the free meals.

"This is obviously going to go a while," Brasel told the courtroom.

The trial, which could last six weeks, is taking place more than two years after the FBI raided Feeding Our Future's offices, publicly revealing allegations of a $250 million fraud, and more than a year and a half since the first charges were filed in the case.Prosecutors have called it one of the largest pandemic-related fraud cases in the country.


The trial involves seven defendants who had ties to Empire Cuisine & Market in Shakopee, which enrolled in federal meal programs to feed low-income children in April 2020. Collectively, the defendants received more than $40 million in federal reimbursements for claiming to serve more than 18 million meals to children across Minnesota — from Owatonna to Faribault to Savage — over the course of 18 months.

Their organizations were "sponsored," or overseen, by Feeding Our Future in St. Anthony and Partners in Nutrition in St. Paul, which grew to become among the largest providers of these meal programs during the COVID-19 pandemic. Prosecutors allege that the defendants, like others in the case, served little or no food, and used the federal money to buy lakeside houses, luxury cars and lavish trips.

But in court documents, defense attorneys argued that defendants didn't knowingly or intentionally commit any crime or defraud anyone, saying that they believed they were providing "real meals, to real people."

The defendants — Abdiaziz Shafii Farah, Mohamed Jama Ismail, Abdimajid Mohamed Nur, Said Shafii Farah, Abdiwahab Maalim Aftin, Mukhtar Mohamed Shariff and Hayat Mohamed Nur — have been charged with wire fraud and money laundering, among other charges.

Since September 2022, 70 people have been charged or indicted and of those, 18 have pleaded guilty, one died and one is known to have fled the country. Prosecutors have said defendants exploited loosened oversight and rules during the pandemic.


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