WASHINGTON -- More than four million Californians -- including roughly a quarter of a million people in the Bay Area -- will see cuts in their food stamp benefits starting Friday when a boost included in the 2009 stimulus package expires.

The cuts mean a family of four will receive $632, or $36 less per month in federal food assistance, even as California food costs rise. That is the equivalent of losing roughly 21 individual meals per month based on calculations used by the Department of Agriculture.

As many as one in nine California families receive food benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program -- known as CalFresh in this state -- including 51,000 households in Santa Clara County, 14,000 in San Mateo County, 33,000 in Contra Costa and 62,000 in Alameda County.

A sign notifies customers that EBT can be used at a store.  House and Senate negotiators are set to begin crafting a compromise farm bill, including cuts
A sign notifies customers that EBT can be used at a store. House and Senate negotiators are set to begin crafting a compromise farm bill, including cuts to the food stamp program. The talks open Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013, just two days before food stamp recipients will see a separate, unrelated cut in their monthly benefits. (AP Photo/The Argus Leader, Jay Pickthorn) (Sioux Falls (S.D.) Argus-Leader file)

California is home to two of the hungriest cities in the nation -- Bakersfield is ranked No. 2 and Fresno No. 5 -- according to a report released by the Food Research and Action Center in September.

"Even before this cut, food benefits were already not enough for families who receive SNAP," said Jessica Bartholow, legislative advocate at the Western Center on Law and Poverty. "With an inadequate amount of food, families could go without and even go hungry."

The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act included a food stamp increase aimed at providing a cash infusion for the economy and recession relief for the nation's 48 million food stamp recipients. That 13.6 percent boost is now expiring and Congress has not put in place an increase to make up for it.

Some members of Congress are pushing to restore the cuts as part of the pending Farm Bill. But the House has already approved a Republican measure to further cut benefits by $40 billion over the next 10 years.

"As a nation, we should be committed to eradicating hunger for families, veterans and our seniors," said Rep. Gloria Negrete McLeod, D-Montclair, who is serving on a committee to reconcile differences between the House and Senate farm bills.

However, Negrete McLeod acknowledged "the challenge before us will not be easy as many members have proposed even deeper cuts to SNAP."

House Republicans argue that their aim is not to hurt society's most vulnerable. Rather, they believe this is a much-needed overhaul to a bloated entitlement that has grown to $80 billion a year, and primarily will encourage able-bodied adults to get back into the workforce.

The amount of lost benefits depends on family size. A family of three will see its benefit cut from $526 to $497. Individuals will see a cut of $11 a month, from $200 to $189.

The reduction will save the nation roughly $5 billion a year, including $457 million in California alone, according to a report from the liberal-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

This cut will also reduce benefits for 4.2 million Californians, the majority of whom are children, elderly and people with disabilities. The loss for California children alone will total $373 million.

The state informed participants of the scheduled cuts by mail several months ago, according to Michael Weston, a spokesman for the California Department of Social Services.

"If recipients need further assistance we encourage them to use alternatives like food banks," Weston said.

However, some who work with SNAP recipients expressed concern that the reduction will catch many by surprise.

"There is a lot of (dependence on food) benefits and we are worried recipients won't recognize these cuts come November 1," Bartholow said.

To qualify for food stamps, individuals must earn no more than 130 percent of the federal poverty level. That means a single person with an income less than $14,941 or a family of four earning less than $30,625 is eligible. The average monthly benefit for a California food stamp recipient -- which includes both individuals and families of varying size -- is $336 a month.

The cuts will be particularly difficult in California, where the cost of basics like gas and housing are higher than in most of the country. Nearly a quarter of the state's children and one in 12 seniors live below the poverty line, according to the center.

Weston said those losing benefits who need to locate a local food bank or pantry should call 877-847-3663.

The California News Service is a project of the University of California's Washington Center and the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Contact CNS at cns@ucdc.edu.