LAKE COUNTY -- Changes to the United States Department of Agriculture Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, could impact local residents' access to food.

SNAP provides food-purchasing assistance to more than 36 million low- and no-income people living in the United States.

More than 1 million people in Michigan receive food assistance through SNAP.

In Mecosta County the number of adults receiving assistance in October was 2,594; in Osceola County, 1,563; and in Lake County, 1,659.

Gov. Whitmer has been a vocal supporter of SNAP, and responded to the new regulation in a tweet, saying, "USDA's cruel new SNAP rule threatens access to critical food assistance for thousands of Michiganders, and over 1 million people nationwide. We should be making it easier, not harder, for families to put food on the table and get ahead."

The new rule, to take effect in April 2020, strengthened work requirements for program eligibility for people identified as "able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWD)."

The new rule does not affect families with dependent children, people with disabilities, or seniors.

Federal law defines ABAWD as people who are able to work, are between the ages of 18 and 50, don't have disabilities and don't have dependents.

People in this category do not normally qualify for assistance, but the law allowed areas with high unemployment to waive the restrictions to enable ABAWDs to qualify.

Previously, areas with unemployment rates as low as 2.5 percent could give waivers. The new rule restricts waivers to areas with 6 percent or higher unemployment.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of October, the unemployment rate in Michigan was at 4.1 percent. Mecosta County was at 3.6 percent, Osceola County, 2.9 percent, and Lake County 4.6 percent.

Bob Wheaton, public information officer for Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, said in a statement that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the MDHHS are committed to helping Michiganders stay healthy and access nutritious food.

"These modest benefits help children go further in school and in life, and they help adults stay healthy and seek jobs," Wheaton said. "We strongly oppose the Trump administration's actions to push people off food assistance or cut their benefits -- including this new rule that is effective next April."

"The action at the federal level is very concerning and makes it more difficult for us to assist the people who were negatively affected by that change," he continued. "We are concerned about where people will be able to turn for help putting food on the table. We will explore whatever we can do to help this population."

Local food pantries are available to assist those who are in need, however, they may not be able to completely fill the gap, according to Robert Campbell, CEO of Feeding America.

"While there's a belief that food banks will fill the gap if the proposals move forward, that's simply out of reach for charities," Campbell said. "SNAP provides nine meals for every one meal provided by food banks and other charities."

Diane Long, Executive director of Project Starburst in Big Rapids, said it is not certain they would be able to keep up with demand if many are denied SNAP assistance.

"Food insecurity rates would increase, resulting in more hungry individuals," she said. "Unfortunately, Project Starburst would need to increase its funding sources and donations to accommodate them, and donations have already been down this year."

Bread of Life in Baldwin director, Lynne Mills, said she did not know how many people locally may be impacted by the change in the rules, but anytime there is a change, they will typically see an increase in need.

"We have already seen a steady increase in the number of families needing food assistance," Mills said. "Our numbers have gone from 30 to 50 people a week to 80 to 90 a week. As of November, we had 126 more families than last year, and we are averaging 350 families a month."

"Seniors and children are the most vulnerable, and they will not be affected by the new rules," Mills added. "Those who are able to work have the most difficulty, because there are just not a lot of jobs in the area."

The new rule is set to take effect in April 1, 2020.

The new restrictions are estimated to save the U.S. government more than $5 billion over the next five years.