Thousands of Minnesotans could lose access to food stamps when a federal rule change goes into effect next year tightening work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Federal officials say about 7% of those on SNAP are able-bodied adults without dependents and that the rule change will save the government $5.5 billion over five years. U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said the change is about "restoring the original intent of food stamps ... moving more able-bodied Americans to self-sufficiency."

But advocates who serve Minnesotans who rely on SNAP argue that the change will make it difficult for those who need help to get it and put even more pressure on food shelves and other community programs.

The population of able-bodied adults without dependents has been targeted by some as people who are too lazy to work, said Colleen Moriarty, executive director of Hunger Solutions Minnesota, a public policy advocacy and hunger relief agency.

But, she said, "that couldn't be further from the truth. Many in that population include veterans with PTSD, the homeless and those with mental health issues.

"There are legitimate reasons why people can't work," Moriarty said. "Those issues may not be apparent to the naked eye, such as those who suffer from a mental illness. It's not like they lost an arm or a leg."

Under current law, able-bodied adults without dependents can receive SNAP benefits for a maximum of three months during a three-year period, unless they're working or enrolled in an education or training program for 80 hours a month.

In some states, including Minnesota, that time limit has been waived in counties with high unemployment. But under the new rule, the criteria will be tightened for such waivers.

When Minnesota lost its statewide SNAP waiver for able-bodied adults without children in 2013, more than 46,000 people lost their SNAP benefits in the first year, according to the state Department of Human Services. Officials said Wednesday that it's unclear how many people will be affected by the latest rule change, but they expect to get more information when they talk to U.S. Department of Agriculture officials this week. It's likely to affect fewer people than in 2013.

According to USDA officials who announced the proposed changes on Wednesday, the new rule won't affect children and their parents, those over 50 years old, those with a disability or pregnant women. It will be restricted to those 18 to 49 years of age without dependents, said Brandon Lipps, the USDA deputy undersecretary for food nutrition and consumer services. Nationwide, the rule change could cut about 700,000 people from food stamps.

"The changes reflect the belief that more Americans can enter and re-enter the workforce," Lipps said, "so they can know the dignity of work."

Moriarty and other advocates argue that federal officials aren't taking into account that some able-bodied adults without dependents who are on SNAP have tremendous needs and live well below the poverty line.

"Think of the person with mental illness who needs additional help to be able to get food," she said. "Think of the veteran with PTSD who can't cope with the experience of going to the county to get certified for benefits."

Some people merely need extra time to get the documentation needed to receive SNAP benefits, and they can get that under the current program, Moriarty said.

Federal officials are framing this as an employment issue, she added. "It's not," Moriarty said. "They just want fewer and fewer people to be able to be eligible for public benefits. ... This is a very callous rule that they're putting into place."

Allison O'Toole, Second Harvest Heartland's CEO, said she's concerned that the change is just the first of at least three that will limit access to the federal food safety net.

"It's part of a series of attacks on SNAP that will have a huge impact on working families in Minnesota, including kids and seniors," she said. "It's what they call a death by a thousand cuts."

Not everyone has felt the effects of a strong economy, O'Toole said. "People are underemployed. They're living paycheck to paycheck," she said. "We see a growing number of people accessing assistance at food shelves and community meal programs."

About two-thirds of those who visit food shelves and other programs have a member of the family who has worked in the past year, O'Toole said. "SNAP benefits fill a gap."

Last year, Second Harvest Heartland distributed 89 million meals in central and southern Minnesota and western Wisconsin. "For every meal we distribute, SNAP provides 12 meals," O'Toole said.

Tightened eligibility for SNAP will mean more people will need additional help from food shelves and other relief organizations, she said.

"We know SNAP works and gives families a little help when they need it," O'Toole said. "These cuts take food from Minnesota families' tables. It's just that simple."

The Washington Post contributed to this report. Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788