Defense attorneys in the first Feeding Our Future trial argued in federal court Monday that their clients, accused of defrauding the government in a massive meal fraud scheme, actually followed rules and served "real food" to Minnesota children in need.

The defendants navigated a complex federal program that was upended in the pandemic, their attorneys said in opening statements, publicly making their case for the first time to rebut the government's accusations that they stole millions of dollars and spent it on themselves. They noted that the government approved thousands of waivers loosening rules and oversight to get food to low-income kids when schools were shuttered, including allowing for-profit restaurants to participate.

While nonprofits like Feeding Our Future oversaw the food sites and vendors, the defendants were part of businesses that could make money, the attorneys argued.

"It's called profit. That's how we do things in America," defense attorney Andrew Birrell said on behalf of his client, Abdiaziz Shafii Farah, who started the Shakopee restaurant at the center of the trial, Empire Cuisine & Market. "He made a fair profit margin. He provided a lot of meals."

The high-profile trial is the first to take place since the FBI's investigation was revealed more than two years ago, alleging that a web of restaurants, vendors and nonprofits stole millions of dollars meant to reimburse schools, day cares and nonprofits for feeding low-income kids after school and in the summer. Instead, prosecutors say, members of the group bought luxury cars, houses and trips, and engaged in kickbacks and bribes.

Prosecutors have said that the more than $250 million fraud is one of the biggest cases of its kind in Minnesota history and one of the largest pandemic-related fraud cases in the country.

In a 70-minute opening statement, Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Ebert argued that the seven defendants on trial collectively pocketed more than $40 million for claiming to serve more than 18 million meals to children across Minnesota communities — from Owatonna to Savage. He said the "brazen fraud" scheme exploited the lax rules and oversight, with defendants submitting phony invoices and rosters of made-up names of kids, including "John Doe."

"Their scheme was fueled by deception and corruption," Ebert said. "The defendants simply pocketed the children's lunch money."

Since the first charges were filed in September 2022, 70 people have been charged or indicted and, of those, 18 have pleaded guilty. The trial, which could last six weeks, could foreshadow or affect the other trials to come, legal experts said, including that of Feeding Our Future executive director Aimee Bock, whose organization was a "sponsor" overseeing paperwork.

Bock, whose trial date hasn't been set, has denied wrongdoing and pleaded not guilty.

On Monday, Ebert showed the 12 jurors and six alternates, who were sworn in last week, a sample of some of the evidence prosecutors will display, including text messages between defendants boasting about becoming millionaires and photos of piles of cash.

"Their fraud went viral," Ebert said, adding that defendants lined their pockets in a "monumental crime of opportunity."

Ebert showed some of the invoices with "absurd amounts" and "impossibly round numbers" replicated each day. For instance, in Faribault, the defendants claimed 7,000 daily servings of food to kids in a city that had only 4,000 kids in schools.

The programs, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, weren't meant for anyone to get rich, Ebert said, adding that the programs' purpose was to make meals, "not millionaires."

He said defendants distributed some food to create a "smokescreen" of legitimacy, but only about 10% of the food was served. He said prosecutors will call defendants who have pleaded guilty and other witnesses.

Defense attorneys: 'Food was real'

The seven defendants have been charged with wire fraud and money laundering, among other charges. For about three hours Monday, six of their seven attorneys gave opening statements, arguing that prosecutors took information out of context. They said they'll call witnesses to testify about working in the program and receiving the meals.

During the pandemic, the government waivers allowed defendants to give out "meal packs," bundling seven days' worth of groceries, which rapidly increased the amount of food dispersed and explains why numbers of meals each day were the same, defense attorneys said. Families didn't need to provide identification and anyone from outside a school district could get a meal, Birrell added.

Sponsors, including Feeding Our Future and the St. Paul nonprofit Partners in Nutrition, reviewed every meal claim, Birrell said.

He added that Farah, like other defendants, was born in Somalia and moved to the United States at 15 to escape war, graduating from the University of Minnesota with a business degree before starting a gas station and market in Shakopee in 2014.

Patrick Cotter, who represents Empire Cuisine co-owner Mohamed Jama Ismail, said prosecutors are waving a "huge broad brush" in their allegations. "He was running a business feeding people in the community and, yes, making a profit," Cotter said.

Edward Sapone added that his client, Abdimajid Mohamed Nur, was just a 20-year-old track star who was a site supervisor, working 14 hours a day to deliver food. "He may have been over his head," Sapone said, but "he didn't make the rules, he just played by them." Nur's sister, Hayat Mohamed Nur, who allegedly created invoices and rosters, has also been charged.

Steve Schleicher, who represents Farah's brother, Said Shafii Farah, co-owner of a food vendor, called into question the credibility of witnesses prosecutors will call, witnesses who have pleaded guilty and stand to get reduced prison sentences for testifying. He said the prosecutors' case is based on suspicions and speculation, citing FBI agents raiding Farah's house in January 2022 and searching his 9-year-old daughter's pink bedroom but not the Minneapolis warehouse where food was stored.

Andrew Garvis, who represents Abdiwahab Maalim Aftin, who also owned the vending company, added that the government has thrown out "big giant conspiracy allegations." Fred Goetz, who represents Mukhtar Mohamed Shariff, called into question Bloomington residents who could testify, saying they've been hostile toward the mosque in the city. Shariff ran logistics for the program, Goetz said, and provided "real food to real people."

Goetz said officials from the state's Education Department — which has faced scrutiny for its oversight of the programs — are biased, bitter and deflecting blame for the vast confusion in the programs during the pandemic.

Emily Honer, a supervisor in the nutrition program division at the Education Department, was the first witness to testify and will resume testimony Tuesday. She explained the requirements of the meal programs. Asked if nonprofits could turn a profit in one of the meal programs, she replied "absolutely not."