About 4,000 Minnesotans could lose access to food stamps if they don't meet new work requirements or exemptions that were part of this month's federal debt ceiling deal.

The policy change, which will be phased in over two years, raises from 49 to 54 the upper age at which childless adults must meet work rules to consistently get food stamps. It also adds new exemptions to work restrictions, part of the compromise struck between Democratic President Joe Biden and House Republicans in raising the debt ceiling.

While the expanded age rules affect fewer than 1% of the nearly 445,000 Minnesotans who receive food stamps — also called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP — local nonprofits say the change could cause more people to seek help from food shelves, adding pressure to already overloaded programs. In 2022, more Minnesotans visited food shelves than any year on record.

Republicans have long sought to expand work rules for SNAP recipients. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., has said the change will save money and put more people to work, according to the Associated Press.

But a Congressional Budget Office estimate also shows that the new exemptions from work requirements — for veterans, people experiencing homelessness and adults under 25 who were in foster care — will actually result in more people receiving SNAP and increase spending on the program, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"It's being promoted as some kind of employment program," said Colleen Moriarty, executive director of Hunger Solutions Minnesota, a statewide advocacy group. "All the studies show that doesn't work. ... You're much less likely to go out and look for a job if you're hungry."

Starting in October, the age rule will expand to 52-year-olds without dependents, who have to work or be in a training program for at least 80 hours a month. The age limit will be raised to 54 in fall 2024.

Starting July 1, about 27,000 18- to 49-year-old Minnesotans without dependents will have to resume following work rules that were paused in April 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Those who don't meet the work or training program requirements will only get three months of SNAP benefits within a three-year period.

In Minnesota, the average SNAP benefit per household member is $157 a month, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The center estimates that about 4,000 50- to 54-year-olds in Minnesota could be affected by the new work rules, while the Minnesota Department of Human Services puts the estimate at about 4,400 residents. Human Services officials started contacting residents this month to let them know about the change.

In comparison, 12,000 Wisconsin residents, 6,000 Iowans and 1,000 North Dakotans could lose SNAP benefits because of the policy change, according to the Budget and Policy Priorities Center.

The news could deter some people from applying for SNAP even if they qualify, said Tina England, who runs a 32-person SNAP outreach team that helps 1,000 Minnesotans a month fill out the 10-page application and connect to resources.

"People who can legitimately work are working," said England, who works for Brooklyn Park-based Second Harvest Heartland, one of about 30 organizations statewide with SNAP outreach teams. "People will just drop out of the system because it's too many hoops to jump through and they'll resort to food shelves or not eating right."

More Minnesotans are relying on food stamps to feed themselves and their families. In May, 444,678 Minnesotans received food stamps — 62,000 more people than the monthly average in 2019, and 31,000 more Minnesotans receiving food stamps than the monthly average in 2020.

More Minnesotans were affected by the ending of emergency SNAP benefits this year, which reverted back to standard SNAP amounts in April after boosting amounts during the pandemic. As a result, food shelves saw an increase in people in need and are now bracing for another influx.

"What we hear from our participants is, SNAP is not enough to cover their grocery costs every month," said Julia McCarthy of Keystone Community Services in St. Paul, which has SNAP outreach and operates two food shelves that served double the number of people from 2021 to 2022. "We don't see signs of it stopping. ... We're seeing more new people than we have ever seen."

Legislators recently approved Keystone's request for $2.6 million to open a food center in St. Paul this fall, tripling the amount of space the nonprofit has to feed 12,000 people a month. The Legislature also approved an extra $3 million a year to the state's 470 food shelves, on top of $5 million in emergency aid.

For every meal the emergency food system provides, SNAP typically provides nine meals, so food stamps are a longer-term answer to addressing hunger, Moriarty said. Whether emergency SNAP benefits are dropped, eviction moratoriums are ended or work rules for SNAP expanded, "it's all aimed at the lowest-income people in Minnesota," she said, "so that's where my concern is and my disgust is."

"If you're spiraling in a catastrophe, this isn't the net that saves you," she said, referring to the work rule change. "It's punishment for being poor."