A defendant in the Feeding Our Future case took the stand Wednesday, the only one of the case's seven defendants to testify in their own defense.

Mukhtar Mohamed Shariff, 33, of Burnsville, talked about his dream of becoming an entrepreneur and building several businesses in Seattle, years before he moved to Minnesota and got involved with the meal programs at the center of the federal fraud investigation.

"I've always wanted to do business and entrepreneurship," he told his attorney, Frederick Goetz, who began questioning him Wednesday.

Goetz asked him if the consulting company Shariff started years before he moved to Minnesota was a shell company to collect money from the federal child nutrition programs, since prosecutors allege defendants in the case laundered money through shell companies.

"Absolutely not," Shariff said.

Shariff's testimony was another surprise in the six-week federal trial, following the announcement Tuesday by six of the seven defendants that they would rest their case without calling any witnesses.

Shariff's testimony will continue Thursday, followed by cross examination from prosecutors. Closing arguments in the case are expected on Friday, with the jury deliberating on Monday.

The trial is the first one in a broader investigation that led to charges against 70 people who are accused of stealing federal money meant to fund meals for kids in need during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Prosecutors say it's one of the largest pandemic-related fraud cases in the United States, with more than $250 million stolen from programs run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to reimburse schools, daycares and nonprofits for feeding low-income children after school and during the summer.

Prosecutors allege the defendants created shell companies to launder money, submitted rosters of made-up children's names and inflated meal claims to receive more than $40 million for 18 million meals at food sites from Rochester to St. Cloud. They claim that defendants used the money instead on lavish purchases, including a $1 million lakefront Prior Lake property, luxury cars and gold jewelry.

In the past month, prosecutors have called more than 30 witnesses, many of whom said they didn't see many people, if any, receiving meals at other food distribution sites run by the defendants.

On Wednesday, Shariff's attorneys called several witnesses who said they recalled families in long lines of cars receiving bags of groceries from Shariff and his team in a parking lot of Dar Al-Farooq Islamic Center in Bloomington. Eight witnesses testified, including that Shariff's company purchased more than $1 million worth of food for the meal programs and distributed food to hundreds of families at the mosque.

"Any time I was there, it was being distributed," imam Abdirahman Kariye said, adding that it seemed "possible and very likely" that the meal site served 2,000 to 3,000 kids on average each day as it claimed throughout 2021.

Worshippers come from across the Twin Cities to the mosque, many of whom are low-income with big families. The need for food assistance rose drastically during the pandemic when schools shuttered, four members of the mosque testified, including a mother of four who received the food.

"There were a lot of cars," said Khalid Omar, who works at the mosque. "There was a great need."

Under questioning by prosecutors, mosque members said they didn't count the number of people at food distributions. Prosecutors pointed out inconsistencies in the testimony, with some witnesses recalling food distributions on Saturdays and others saying the meals were given out several days a week.

The other defendants in the case are Said Shafii Farah, Abdiaziz Shafii Farah, Mohamed Jama Ismail, Abdimajid Mohamed Nur, Abdiwahab Maalim Aftin and Hayat Mohamed Nur. All seven were charged in 2022 with wire fraud and money laundering, among other charges. Their food sites were largely overseen by St. Paul nonprofit Partners in Nutrition (also known as Partners in Quality Care), as well as St. Anthony nonprofit Feeding Our Future, which is at the heart of the case.

On the witness stand Wednesday, Shariff spoke clearly and confidently, looking at the jury while answering Goetz's questions. He said he's always been drawn to starting businesses, ranging from selling items on eBay as a teen to running a shipping business on the side while working at Microsoft as a software engineer.

Shariff, a married father of two, said he was born in Somalia and fled to the U.S. with his family during the country's civil war when he was 5 years old. He's one of 17 kids in a large blended family who grew up in a tough neighborhood in Boston before moving to a small city in Maine, he said.

As a young adult, Shariff moved to Seattle, studied computer science and started a consulting company in 2018 to help small businesses with digital marketing. He said he also helped rebuild a website for Somalia's embassy in Seattle.

Shariff's attorneys also called a sales consultant from Sysco, the national food supplier, to testify about providing hundreds of cases of milk, crackers, cereal and other produce in 2021 to Afrique Hospitality Group, Shariff's company — the sales consultant's largest account at the time.

Shariff's attorneys also questioned University of Minnesota Prof. Paul Vaaler about his extensive research on migrants' finances, related to defense attorneys' arguments in the trial that the defendants relied on informal transactions that aren't reflected in the financial data that prosecutors have relied on.

Vaaler said many refugees are more comfortable with informal transactions done with family or friends based on trust and verbal agreements, not detailed written contracts. While that may seem irregular to some, it isn't illegal, he said, likening the informality to someone holding a garage sale but not claiming the sales on their taxes.

"Your word is your bond," he said. "Trust is so central to business transactions."

In his cross-examination, Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Thompson questioned Vaaler about how he hadn't reviewed the evidence in this case and wasn't giving opinions about the criminal charges. Vaaler said yes.

"This case is not a garage sale ... [it's a] very different situation here?" Thompson asked. Vaaler said yes.