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Program implementation reduces food insecurity during COVID-19 pandemic

Researchers saw the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer program and grab-and-go meals helped provide meals to a wide range of children after schools closed in March 2020.

The Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT) program and grab-and-go school meal programs help children access food while schools are closed, according to a recent study.

There have been multiple challenges in providing children with the proper amount of nutrition. Racial and socioeconomic status often determine which children receive access to high quality food, and children from low-income households are often at greater risk of obesity or nutrition-related health threats.

The National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs have reduced food disparity among youth, offering free or reduced-price meals (FRPM) to children whose families were 185% or below the poverty level. COVID-19 changed this, causing schools to close and children reliant on these programs to be at increased risk of food insecurity.

In order to provide children with reliable food sources, the US Congress authorized the implementation of grab-and-go school meals and the P-EBT program. Grab-and-go school meals are made in schools and distributed at community distribution sites or mobile delivery systems to be eaten off campus, while EBT programs are distributions to parents on a debit-like-card equal to the value of school meals missed.

As data on the effectiveness of these approaches was not clear, researchers analyzed the program implementation and family costs, proportion of FRPM-eligible youths reached, cost per meal distributed, and benefits received by participating youths in these programs throughout the Spring of 2020.

Costs, population reach, and benefits distributed of P-EBT and grab-and-go school meals were evaluated using the Consolidated Health Economic Evaluation Reporting Standards guideline. Researchers also examined how far these programs reached in a broader population. Children aged 6 to 18 years old with family incomes of 185% or less of the federal poverty level were included in the study group.

Of the 30 million children eligible for grab-and-go meals, 8 million were able to receive them, and almost 27 million benefited from P-EBT. Almost 430 million meals and $3.2 billion in benefits were distributed. 

Grab-and-go meals on averaged saw the most benefits, but P-EBT delivered meals at a lower cost-per-meal than grab-and-go meals. There were lower public sector implementation costs and higher uncompensated time costs to families in the P-EBT program compared to the grab-and-go meals.

These results show P-EBT can benefit a wide range of children at a low cost while grab-and-go meals can provide meals directly to children, including those who may not be eligible for FRPM. Researchers suggested disaster preparedness plans to prevent children from being at risk of food insecurity in the future.

Reference

Kenney EL, Walkinshaw LP, Shen Y, Fleischhacker SE, Jones-Smith J, Bleich S, et al. Costs, reach, and benefits of COVID-19 pandemic electronic benefit transfer and grab-and-goschool meals for ensuring youths’ access to food during school closures. JAMA Netw Open. 2022;5(8):e2229514. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2022.29514