An FBI agent described Wednesday how the agency's massive meal fraud investigation unfolded, saying that investigators quickly saw red flags at food-distribution sites tied to seven defendants on trial this week.

On the third day of the high-profile trial, FBI special agent Jared Kary testified about the work investigators did to uncover the Feeding Our Future fraud scheme, which has accused dozens of people of stealing federal money meant to feed low-income kids.

Kary said he and his team scoured a paper trail of bank records, contracts and emails, interviewed witnesses and visited at least one desolate site in 2021 that claimed to serve thousands of kids at a time.

"We saw that a lot of the funds were used for things that were not related to the federal child nutrition program," Kary said, adding that many organizations involved in the programs, including the Shakopee restaurant at the center of this week's trial, had just been created in 2020 and it appeared "these organization and entities were created to get this money."

Kary, the second witness to testify in the trial so far, said the FBI team that investigates white-collar crimes dug into the case after the Minnesota Department of Education, which administers the programs, reported suspected fraud in spring 2021. The U.S. Department of Agriculture funds the programs that reimburse nonprofits, schools and day cares for feeding low-income kids after school and during the summer.

Kary said investigators focused on two nonprofits, Partners in Nutrition in St. Paul and Feeding Our Future in St. Anthony, which both had oversight of organizations that the seven defendants ran. He said the meal programs had big increases in reimbursement claims starting in 2020.

"It definitely warranted an investigation," Kary said of the high numbers and "questionable" meal site locations close to one another. "How could this possibly be happening?"

Kary said his team noticed that many of the organizations Feeding Our Future and Partners in Nutrition worked with had just been created, which "seemed odd," and a majority of the businesses' bank accounts were made up of funds from the meal programs.

This is the first trial since charges were filed in the sprawling Feeding Our Future case in September 2022. Since then, 70 people have been charged or indicted and, of those, 18 have pleaded guilty in what prosecutors said is one of the largest pandemic-related fraud schemes in the country.

Prosecutors allege that defendants in the Feeding Our Future case spent little to no money on food, submitting fake invoices and phony attendance rosters to collect millions of dollars to buy lakeside homes, luxury cars and trips, and to give kickbacks to one another. Defense attorneys argued this week that they did serve "real food" and collected a fair profit as a result.

This week's trial involves seven defendants with ties to a Shakopee restaurant, Empire Cuisine & Market. Abdiaziz Shafii Farah and Mohamed Jama Ismail registered the business with the state on April 1, 2020. Their attorneys said the business was created before the pandemic and was renamed.

Then, 15 days later, Empire signed a contract with Partners in Nutrition to participate in the meal program. By May, Empire submitted reimbursement claims that said it had served 290 meals a day each day of the month. A bank account for Empire was opened that month.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Thompson went through the "tedious" process of reviewing the many forms Kary's team gathered, showing that food sites tied to Empire quickly grew to serve thousands of meals every day at parks, churches and apartment buildings across the state, from Faribault to St. Cloud.

"It was significant that an organization that had opened in April 2020 was able to obtain $30 million in revenue in a short amount of time," Kary said of the total amount Empire got.

Kary said he visited one Circle Pines park in fall 2021 where a food site claimed to serve about 2,000 a kids a day, but he said he found a park fenced off due to construction.

The FBI investigation was publicly revealed when Feeding Our Future and other sites were raided on Jan. 20, 2022.

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

Their defense attorneys have said that prosecutors don't have any proof meals were inflated, countering that allegations are based off speculation. They said defendants gave seven days' of meals at once, a bundling process that was temporarily allowed during the pandemic as part of relaxed federal rules. That greatly increased meal numbers, attorneys said, and they said they'll show photos and evidence later in the trial that meals were served.

Earlier Wednesday, defense attorneys questioned an Education Department supervisor who raised red flags about the programs. Attorney Edward Sapone pointed out that the supervisor, Emily Honer, didn't visit Empire's food sites to see food being distributed nor did her staff, and the department never audited Empire, continuing to approve reimbursement claims.

The trial before a jury of mostly white Twin Cities residents could last six weeks.