School closings during the pandemic’s first year brought an immediate and potentially devastating problem: How would millions of children get the school meals many of them depended on?

The US Congress responded by authorizing the Department of Agriculture to roll out two major programs. It launched the “grab and go school meals,” which helped schools provide prepared meals for off-site consumption and distributed funding for the state-operated Pandemic EBT (P-EBT) program, which gave parents debit cards so they could purchase groceries from food retailers.

Those programs reached more than 30 million children and either directly provided meals or, through the P-EBT program, cash for nearly 1.5 billion meals a month in 2020, according to a new study.

As reported in JAMA Network Open, the researchers found:

  • The P-EBT program reached 26.9 million of the 30 million children whose families qualified because of low income at a cost of $6.46 per meal, providing access to 1.1 billion meals a month.
  • The grab-and-go program reached 8 million children not eligible for P-EBT at a cost of $8.07 per meal, providing 429 million meals a month.

“When schools had to close across the country during the spring of 2020 due to COVID-19, kids all of a sudden lost access to school lunches and breakfasts. From a public health and nutrition security perspective, this was an urgent concern, given that these meals are critical for students at risk of food insecurity and are also an essential source of nutrition for millions of children,” says lead author Erica Kenney, assistant professor of public health nutrition at Harvard University.

When these programs began, no one really knew how effectively they would reach kids who needed them and at what cost per meal. So the researchers set out to try to answer how these two major policy responses to the loss of regular school meal access worked.

Read the full article about food programs for kids by Jake Ellison at Futurity .