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The $900 billion Covid relief package will extend nutrition benefits for families

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People wait in line at the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen on Dec. 15, 2020 in New York City.
Robert Nickelsberg | Getty Images

The $900 billion stimulus package Congress agreed upon Sunday night includes more money for nutrition benefits to support vulnerable families struggling amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The upcoming bill is expected to include $13 billion in increased benefits for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and other child nutrition benefits, according to a summary of the legislation.

In addition, the bill will boost SNAP benefits by 15% for six months for all participants, and excludes unemployment compensation from being counted as income in regards to eligibility for the program. It also provides funds to support food banks and seniors, according to a statement from Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.

While SNAP was not set to expire at the end of the year without another round of stimulus, as some unemployment benefits were, additional funding to the program will likely ensure that expanded allotments continue. During the pandemic, SNAP boosted allotments for families through emergency assistance, giving more food to those who qualified for the benefit.

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"This relief will surely help families struggling to meet their basic expenses right now," said Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, director and fellow at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

The additional money to SNAP, along with $600 stimulus checks; extended unemployment insurance, plus an extra $300 per week; and food benefits for families who lost access to school meals, will help ease the crisis, she added.

"The increase is great news," said Elaine Waxman, senior fellow in the Income and Benefits Policy center at the Urban Institute, adding that nearly 40% of SNAP households were already eligible for the maximum benefit before the pandemic, meaning they had the fewest resources for food.

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"The prior increase didn't boost benefits for these most vulnerable households, so they've been through nine months of a pandemic and rising food prices with no additional support," she said.

Going forward, both Whitmore Schanzenbach and Waxman would like to see the policy extended even further, and included in any upcoming bills.

"The concerning part is that the increase sounds like it's just for a few months, which is not going to be sufficient for food insecure households, who will be digging out of this recession for a long time," said Waxman.

SNAP is an important entitlement for the millions of families, including those with children dealing with food insecurity amid the pandemic. SNAP does have eligibility rules but no work requirement to receive aid, making it possible for unemployed people to get benefits if they qualify. People can apply for SNAP through the state where they live.

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CHECK OUT: Suze Orman: Don't pay off debt with a second stimulus check — here's your 'first priority' via Grow with Acorns+CNBC.

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