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As recession gripped the state a half-decade ago, Californians receiving what used to be called food stamps more than doubled to more than four million, a legislative hearing was told Tuesday, but the state still has, relatively, a very low rate of utilization.

Californians' use of what is now called CalFresh may be the lowest in the nation, a report from the Legislature's budget analyst says.

The state's utilization rate of 57 percent of eligible low-income Californians was calculated by the federal government for 2011 and was tied with Wyoming for the lowest. The national average was 79 percent that year, indicating that were California to reach that level, another 1.4 million Californians would be receiving the electronic benefit cards that replaced food stamps and are used in grocery stores to purchase approved foods.

The report said that the food assistance program increased from two million persons in 2006-07 to more than four million in 2013-13 and showed an especially large jump — nearly 25 percent — in 2009-10, during the depths of the recession. While enrollment is still growing, the rate of increase has dropped to scarcely 5 percent a year as the economy has improved.

However, the report from Legislative Analyst Mac Taylor's office warned legislators that the federal data on utilization may be outdated and otherwise not a true picture of what's happening with the federally financed program in California, although it did not question that the state's use is below average.

The joint hearing by the Assembly and Senate human services committees was called to delve into ways to increase utilization. It heard from a variety of advocates for the poor, as well as state and local officials who administer the program.

PHOTO: Volunteers sort boxes of food at the Elk Grove Food Bank Services in Elk Grove on Feb. 20, 2014. The Sacramento Bee/Randall Benton



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