A jury of Minnesotans from across the state was selected Thursday for the first Feeding Our Future criminal trial.

The four-day process was unusually long to find jurors who weren't connected with or had strong opinions about the high-profile federal meal fraud case.

The 12 jurors and six alternates, who are mostly white and from the Twin Cities, were sworn in. Opening statements are scheduled to start Monday in the trial, which could last six weeks.

U.S. District Judge Nancy Brasel spent more than 22 hours this week questioning more than 70 potential jurors for the trial of seven defendants with ties to a Shakopee restaurant overseen by Feeding Our Future, a former St. Anthony nonprofit.

Prosecutors allege that the defendants — like the 63 other people charged in the sprawling case — stole millions of federal dollars reimbursing meal programs that feed low-income children during the COVID-19 pandemic. Prosecutors have said that the more than $250 million fraud scheme is one of the biggest fraud cases in Minnesota history and one of the largest pandemic-related fraud cases in the country.

The case has sparked hundreds of local and national news stories since the FBI investigation was publicly revealed more than two years ago — publicity that made it difficult to find Minnesotans who hadn't heard of Feeding Our Future or didn't have a strong opinion about the allegations.

In all, 1,000 Minnesotans from across the state were summoned by mail for the case — more than usual. The pool of potential jurors was narrowed to nearly 400 people who responded to the summons or didn't get excused — about four or five times the usual number.

The case also stirred up strong reactions from potential jurors because the programs involved children in need and federal tax dollars. One 37-year-old woman said she would struggle being unbiased about a case that took money from kids.

"The scale of this case is so huge," added a 38-year-old woman from Rockford, excused because of her opinions about the allegations affecting children. "That sort of hits me in the heart because I'm a parent."

The struggle to find impartial jurors was magnified by the case's wide-reaching connections to schools, nonprofits and more than 500 potential witnesses. Several potential jurors knew witnesses, while a couple knew other jurors.

Many potential jurors said they heard of Feeding Our Future in the news when the FBI raided the nonprofit in January 2022, though few could recall details nor had they followed the coverage. Others found out about the investigation from a running group, a poker game or from co-workers. A 22-year-old was dismissed after she said her family had received food from Feeding Our Future in Burnsville.

"You'd have to live in a cave to not heard of this case," a 68-year-old man said before he was dismissed.

Still, quite a few prospective jurors said they had never heard of the case and didn't pay attention to any local news.

The jurors and six alternates range in age from 23 to 70, and come from cities across the metro as well as Belle Plaine and Faribault.

Struggle to find jurors

The massive case centers on U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reimbursements to nonprofits, schools and daycares to feed low-income children after school and during the summer, programs with loosened oversight and rules during the pandemic.

Prosecutors allege that defendants spent little to no money on food, submitting fake invoices or attendance rosters to collect millions of dollars to buy lakeside homes, luxury cars and trips, and to give kickbacks to one another. Since September 2022, 70 people have been charged or indicted and, of those, 18 have pleaded guilty.

Some jurors trekked hours from across Minnesota to downtown Minneapolis for the four-day selection process at the courtroom, which was packed with more than a dozen attorneys representing the defendants or prosecution team.

One by one, Brasel asked each potential juror at least 26 questions about news coverage and their feelings of law enforcement or attorneys who may testify and of Muslims or people with East African backgrounds, given that a number of the witnesses and defendants have connections to Somalia. She also asked if jurors had a connection to the USDA or Minnesota Department of Education, which oversaw the free meal programs in the state, both of which have faced scrutiny for oversight in the programs.

Defendants in this trial — 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. In court documents, their attorneys argued they didn't knowingly or intentionally commit any crime or defraud anyone, saying that they believed they were providing "real meals, to real people."

They collectively received more than $40 million for submitting claims for more than 18 million meals to children.