Nonprofit leaders are pushing back on a federal proposal to change who's eligible for food stamps that could cause 35,500 Minnesotans to lose access to food assistance.

On Thursday, food shelf leaders and others voiced opposition to the rule change for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly referred to as food stamps, ahead of Monday's deadline for public input.

"These cuts will do real harm to the people in the state of Minnesota," said Colleen Moriarty, executive director of Hunger Solutions Minnesota.

The rule change raises the maximum gross income limit for food stamps, disqualifying households that make more than 130% of the federal poverty standard, or $27,024 per year for a family of three.

Federal agriculture officials say it will close a loophole that allowed people with high incomes to get food stamps and will prevent "abuse of a critical safety net system," U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said in a statement. He cited a Minnesota millionaire who received food stamps to prove how easy it was to abuse the system.

The USDA predicts about 3.1 million people across the country, or 9% of recipients, will no longer qualify for food stamps. The USDA's proposal doesn't require congressional approval. Advocates say a decision is expected in 2020.

In July, state officials estimated 12,000 Minnesotans would lose food assistance under the rule change, but that's been updated to 35,500 residents, including 18,000 children, 3,200 seniors and 2,900 adults with disabilities.

Those losing access to food stamps likely will rely more on food shelves. Minnesotans visited food shelves a record 3.4 million times in 2018, according to Hunger Solutions.

At Keystone Community Services in St. Paul, Christine Pulver said its two food shelves are serving a record number of people in its 80-year history. "The emergency food system just keeps growing and growing," she said.

For every meal the emergency food system provides, SNAP provides 12 meals, said Sophia Lenarz-Coy of the Food Group in New Hope.

"Cuts to SNAP are devastating to the families that rely on the program," she said. "There's absolutely no way the charitable food system can replace what federal food assistance is supposed to do for families."

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141