Despite the murmurs of an economy on the upswing, hard times still exist, and some families qualify for food aid benefits. In Sonoma County, that program is CalFresh, an electronic fund provided to recipients for the purchase of food or seed, and with a range of benefits depending on the size of the family and the income they bring in.

As of June, the average amount for food-aid benefits for Sonoma County families of varied sizes was $271 a month.

In the past 12 months, the CalFresh program has seen a 20 percent increase to their program's enrollment, exposing a surge of families who need help to make ends meet. For some, using these benefits can also mean letting go of their pride.

"People are generally not OK with accepting help," Elizabeth Graham of Redwood Community Health Coalition in Petaluma said.

As the program manager of a health and nutrition program utilized by CalFresh, Graham has become very familiar with the benefits available through the program. But nothing taught her more about it than when she started receiving the benefits herself.

"I remember feeling grateful," she said. "But I had mixed emotions. I wouldn't have been able to pay my rent without the added help. But I did experience some negative pushback from certain stores," she added, mentioning her embarrassment when at a register with a cashier not familiar with the benefits card.

"I can imagine how a family would feel really judged."

Joe Lovell, 55, and his wife Lisa Norris-Lovell of Rohnert Park used these benefits for six months along with bi-monthly help from the local food bank. To compensate for a lower food budget, they shopped strategically by opting for meat odds and ends, and in-season fruits and vegetables, also ensuring that staples like cornmeal, legumes, flour and rice were always on hand. They did "lots of crock pot cooking, soups and stews. Checked the &‘damaged packaging' and &‘discontinued' rack every time. Bought cheap coffee and made it weak."

But at no time did Lovell feel shame for needing help.

"We've helped others who were down on their luck," he said. "Things happen, circumstances change. It was just our turn for some bad times."

To better understand what it's like to live on a smaller food budget, several local families took part in a Food Stamp challenge that severely limited their budget for shopping and meal planning.

Ramona Crinella, 65, of Crinella Winery & Vineyards of Forestville, accepted the challenge of living on a food budget of $50 for the week with her partner Skip Swensen, 65. By keeping careful notes and receipts, Crinella was able to stay within their budget by $1, coming in at $49 at the end of the week.

"I think the hardest thing was that we were used to eating out once or twice a week on the spur of the moment," Crinella admitted, noting that a dinner out would have exceeded their $50 budget in one sitting.

Even the beverages they drank required a change.

"I just filled empty wine bottles with water and lemon zest, and we found we liked it even better than our usual coke or bottled carbonated water."

Meal planning also took careful consideration.

"When I planned, I started with the protein," she said. "Eggs are a great, cheap source."

She bought whole chickens at 99 cents a pound and divided them up for several meals. A meatloaf dinner one night became a meal of corn souffl?the next. She also skipped snacking, and packed sandwiches and fruit for lunches instead of paying for a meal out.

Joelynn McIntosh, 34, of Glen Ellen joined the challenge with an intended budget of $75 for the week for her household of two adults and four children whose ages range from infant to 13 years.

As a former single parent and now a stay-at-home mom, McIntosh was already familiar with keeping food costs low. She and her partner, Robert Lee, 47, utilized their well-stocked pantry, included produce from their own garden, and shopped for in-season foods at the farmers market.

"The real trick is to buy the produce at the end of the market," McIntosh said, noting that vendors discount their wares as they would rather sell the produce they brought than pack it up to take home.

Throughout the week, McIntosh kept a tight rein on her budget by cutting meat into smaller pieces and serving smaller portions, using leftovers, and packing lunches for Lee when he went to work. Lee stopped buying his daily cup of coffee and a croissant, and the older kids received lunch through the school's free lunch program, a benefit they were already eligible for due to the family's single-income status.

Despite carefully laid out plans, McIntosh discovered how difficult staying within a tight budget really was. By the end of the challenge time, the family had overspent by $57, making their grand total for the week $133.

Still, McIntosh felt she learned something from this challenge.

"I have kept a better eye on what I am making each day," she said. "It was a good refresher course for the way I used to live when I was a single parent."

While she admitted her kids didn't notice a major change in the way they were eating, McIntosh noted they ate more leftovers this week than they normally do, and Lee missed his coffee shop visits.

"Overall, it was a good exercise for our family," she said.

(Crissi Dillon is the moderator and blogger at SantaRosaMom.com, an online community for parents. You can reach her at cristen.dillon@press democrat.com.)