It's the Wednesday dinner rush at the Friends in Need food shelf and a little girl stares wide-eyed at tables piled high with fresh fruits and vegetables.

"Can we have some carrots? I love carrots," she asked a volunteer, who smiled and filled a bag for the family to add to their cart, next to donations of canned goods, cereal, milk, apples and baked goods in St. Paul Park.

More than 554,000 Minnesotans get federal food assistance — one out of every 10 people in the state. A third are children. Another quarter are elderly or disabled adults. Contrary to popular stereotypes, a majority live in families where at least one adult earns a paycheck.

This week, their food budget rests in the hands of Senate and House negotiators, who are about to begin debate on the massive farm bill that will set the budget for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), still commonly known to many as food stamps.

Republicans, concerned that the program has become far too expansive and expensive, are pushing for $40 billion in cuts to SNAP, which currently feeds 48 million Americans. Those cuts could push millions of people out of the program, including tens of thousands of Minnesotans.

The Minnesota Department of Human Services estimates that the eligibility changes being considered by Congress would cut 16,700 households — an estimated 32,000 people — from the food stamp program in Minnesota. That includes 17,000 children, 4,500 seniors and 4,000 single adults.

"Primarily, [SNAP is] a program of children and the elderly," said Colleen Moriarty, executive director of the Minnesota nonprofit Hunger Solutions. "So when people talk about these 'lazy people who won't get a job' or the 'underperformers who are dragging down the economy,' that's why it's so wrong and so mean-spirited. That's really not who's on the program."

The amount allocated per meal by the federal program is small — an average of $1.29. By Friday, that will shrink 13.6 percent, when a temporary boost of federal stimulus runs out.

U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, who supports the eligibility changes, says that states must tighten income eligibility and work requirements for those applying for nutrition assistance. The Republican House reforms, she said, would preserve the program for those "most in need," while "encouraging and incentivizing work among those who are able." The one in seven Americans and one in 10 Minnesotans on SNAP, she said, "is far too many of us."

The more the government cuts food assistance, the more people wind up turning to community resources like Friends in Need.

"We are seeing lots and lots of new families coming in. People who have never been to a food shelf before," said Michelle Rageth, who runs Friends in Need with the help of 150 volunteers in a building donated by the Northern Tier Energy company. "Lots of middle-class families. It's very, very hard to get them in the door the first time, because they're embarrassed. They think they're the only one out there." Some of them, she notes, have given to the food shelf for years. "They never thought they'd have to use one."

Since the recession, food stamp use has skyrocketed in suburban and rural counties. As of August, there were 183 percent more people on food stamps in Scott County than in 2007, before the recession hit.

SNAP use is up 165 percent in Carver County, 144 percent in Sherburne County, 132 percent in Wright and 102 percent higher in Anoka County. In the Twin Cities, where there were more people receiving aid to begin with, SNAP use jumped 77 percent in Hennepin and 71 percent in Ramsey County.

These are uneasy times for people like Roberta Hernandez of Coon Rapids, who receives $209 a month in SNAP assistance for herself and her three children, ages 7, 5 and 4.

It's not a lot of money — enough to put hamburger in the Hamburger Helper — and she supplements the food budget by visiting local churches and food shelves. She shops the sales, looking for "anything that would be cheap to make. Soups. Sandwiches. Spaghetti."

Even so, the food budget sometimes runs short and the children have to do without extras, like a snack for school.

"My children watch other kids eating their snacks at school, and sometimes I can't pack a snack for them because I don't have the money," she said. "That's hard."

Hernandez, 27, moved to Coon Rapids for the schools and the close-knit community. But finding work — particularly a job that can accommodate a child care schedule — hasn't been easy.

"That little bit of money helps a lot," she said. "It's not enough, but it is a big help. I think about how it would be if I didn't have the $200, and I really would be struggling worse than I am right now."

Last session, a group of Minnesota lawmakers challenged one another to try to eat for a week on the average SNAP budget of $1.29 per meal. Not one of them made it.

Farm bill feud

The almost $1 trillion farm bill funds everything from agricultural subsidies to conservation programs, but the bulk of its budget — almost 80 percent — funds nutritional assistance to the states. And it's the debate over food aid that repeatedly has derailed the bill and threatens to plunge U.S. agriculture policy back to Truman-era programs unless Congress can hammer out a compromise by the end of the year.

"Unfortunately, this has become a political issue and the solution will have to be political," said Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee. He has been trying to get the Farm Bill reauthorized for the past two years.

The Senate has proposed a far more modest $4 billion cut to the SNAP program. The House split farm aid and food aid into separate bills and proposed $40 billion in SNAP cuts, spread across 10 years. Minnesota Representatives Bachmann, John Kline and Erik Paulsen support that proposal.

The conference committee tasked with bridging that multibillion-dollar gap between the House and Senate proposals includes three Minnesota Democrats: Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Peterson, and Rep. Tim Walz.

Republicans say there must be tighter controls on who can and cannot receive SNAP aid. Right now, states have the flexibility to set their own standards for who can receive food aid. The federal standard limits assistance to people living at or below 138 percent of the federal poverty line — that's $15,415 a year for an individual; $26,344 for a family of three — but many states, including Minnesota, set the limit higher. In Minnesota, families living at 165 percent above the federal poverty level — $17,880 for a single adult; $30,216 for a family of three — are eligible for food stamps.

The House worked out a bipartisan agreement in June, only to watch it blow up on the floor when conservatives pushed the amendment that split the farm and food aid provisions.

Democrats, Peterson said, will be reluctant to agree to much more than an 8 percent cut in the SNAP budget, and would likely balk at double-digit cuts, while many House Republicans are pushing to shrink the program by at least $20 billion.

"Hopefully we can figure out the political sweet spot," he said. "We have been working on this for too darn long."

Jennifer Brooks • 651-925-5049