Angel Flores knows exactly how much she receives from the government each month to buy food for her family of four: $386.
She has every dollar budgeted to make sure it stretches until the end of the month. Flores and her boyfriend eat a lot of sandwiches. She uses the CalFresh benefit — formerly called food stamps — to buy healthier food like salads for her two children, ages 4 and 2.
But the monthly benefit is being reduced for the Santa Rosa psychology student and the 48 million other Americans who rely on money from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Further cuts to the program are expected in the coming weeks as Washington lawmakers debate a key piece of legislation that funds food programs like SNAP.
"Honestly, it's scary," said Flores, 24. "It's going to be a big shift for us."
On Friday, a temporary boost in SNAP benefits expired. The supplement was part of the 2009 federal stimulus package. A family of four, like Flores', will now receive $36 less, about 21 meals, per month.
But larger cuts to the nutrition program are looming as Congress debates a new farm bill. The legislation has traditionally funded farming subsidies and U.S. Department of Agriculture food programs. Congress must renew the bill every five years or so. The current farm bill expired in September.
The Republican-led House and Democrat-controlled Senate have passed different versions of the bill, and House and Senate leaders began meeting last week to work out the differences.
The House proposal would slash nearly $40 billion over 10 years from the SNAP program, which funds state food stamp programs such as CalFresh. It would also require able-bodied adults without children to work or volunteer 20 hours a week to receive benefits.
The Senate version would cut SNAP funding by $4 billion, and it does not include the work provision.
Either way, Sonoma County food advocates and administrators expect the cuts to hit low-income families hard.
"People that are participating in these types of programs are calculating every dollar," said David Goodman, executive director of the Redwood Empire Food Bank. "They don't have a lot of discretionary income. They have to make tough decisions."
In Sonoma County, 34,000 people receive CalFresh benefits, up from 18,000 in 2007, according to the county Human Services Department. Half of the recipients are children. The program provides $64 million per year to low-income Sonoma County residents for food assistance. Nationwide, food stamp spending reached a record $78 billion in 2012.
"Talking about reducing funding for a program that is a major provider of a response for food uncertainty, when demand is greater than ever, it doesn't make sense," said Jerry Dunn, director of the county Human Services Department, which administers the program locally.
Dunn said benefits could be reduced across the board or eligibility requirements could change, making some ineligible for benefits.
"It's hard to know what will happen at this point," he said.
Steve Schwartz, executive director of the Interfaith Sustainable Food Collaborative in Sebastopol, said other programs included in the farm bill, such as the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program, are at risk of being eliminated as Congress debates food stamp cuts.
"I would hate to see people forget about the other programs," he said. "There are going to be some SNAP cuts, but it's not going to be zeroed out. Other programs are at risk of getting zeroed out."