A proposed federal change in how utility costs are calculated for households on food stamps would result in thousands of Minnesota families receiving less money for groceries, according to the Minnesota Department of Human Services.

Case workers can deduct the cost of heating and cooling from a household's earnings, which helps them maximize food assistance when they apply for the benefit. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is proposing standardizing how much states can deduct, a move that would hit especially hard in cold weather states like Minnesota.

In its proposed rule, the USDA says the amounts that are deducted vary widely among states. "Removing the inequities related to this deduction will also improve integrity by ensuring [state utility allowances] better reflect what low-income households are actually paying for utilities so that eligible households receive [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)] benefit amounts which more accurately reflect their circumstances, no matter the State in which they reside," the agency wrote last year.

In Minnesota, 416,000 people collected an average of $110 per month in food stamps during fiscal year 2018, according to DHS. While the federal proposal would not be finalized for months, DHS officials warned Friday that the change would result in approximately 40% of families receiving SNAP in Minnesota seeing their average monthly food budget drop $10 — or about 10 meals a month — with some families at risk of losing even more.

"People are using these items for really basic nutrition, and cutting even small amounts will impact these families greatly," said Lisa Bayley, DHS's acting assistant commissioner for Children and Family Services.

Since 2010, when applying for SNAP in Minnesota, applicants get $490 automatically deducted from their household's monthly income to compensate for the high heating costs. The number is based on an average utility cost calculated by DHS. Agency officials have said this eases administrative work by not having to collect and verify each household's utility costs.

The proposed federal rule would drop Minnesota's utility deduction for SNAP applicants to $340.

"We have higher utility costs than a state [like] Florida and they just don't have the same long winters," Bayley said. "By just assuming that everyone in the country is the same and everyone has the same standard utility costs affecting their income, it unfairly targets Minnesotans."

Bayley said this is part of wider concerns DHS has about the "potentially devastating" effects of changes the USDA has sought under the Trump administration. USDA officials have previously said that changes to SNAP are meant to bolster self-sufficiency among recipients and save the federal government billions of dollars over several years. The USDA announced tightened work requirements that would likely cause 8,000 Minnesotans to lose their food assistance. Another federal change to what's known as "broad-based categorical eligibility" would result in an estimated 35,500 food stamp recipients in Minnesota being removed from the rolls.

"Every single one of these [SNAP] cuts keeps me up" because "there will be more hungry neighbors," said Allison O'Toole, CEO of Second Harvest Heartland, Minnesota's largest food bank. The food bank serves more than 500,000 people each year and has seen a steady rise of people coming for help.

O'Toole said that while the food bank and other partner organizations are planning long term for more changes to SNAP, the organizations "cannot absorb the demand" if more cuts continue and would be overwhelmed by the increased number of families seeking assistance.

"Our concern is when these cuts are taken altogether, the cuts will literally take food off Minnesotans' tables," O'Toole said. "In my mind it's death by a thousand cuts."

The USDA is reviewing public comments about the utility costs proposal.

Marissa Evans • 612-673-4280