More than 350,000 children from poor families across the state will receive extra food assistance to help address rising hunger and food insecurity during the economic crisis brought on by the corona­virus pandemic.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Thursday that it has approved Minnesota's request to operate a new program that increases monthly food assistance that families receive if their children are eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches. The extra payments will be provided on families' electronic benefits transfer (EBT) cards used to buy groceries.

The extra benefit is designed to help children avoid going hungry during the summer months, when schools are closed and children from poor households lose access to free lunches.

The Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS), which administers the food-stamp program, will issue benefits in a lump sum of $325 per child starting Saturday. Families must use the benefits to purchase food within a year of the date issued. The relief will cost an estimated $114 million, state officials said.

"Hundreds of thousands of school children depend on one or more healthy meals a day through the school meal program," said DHS Commissioner Jodi Harpstead in a statement. "This new program will ensure families can purchase healthy food to fill their children's stomachs while easing the financial burden of extra grocery purchases."

Since the pandemic began, rates of hunger have increased dramatically across the nation. A study released this month by the Brookings Institution found that 2 in 5 households with children under age 12 were "food insecure," meaning they regularly did not have enough to eat. Demand at many of Minnesota's 350 food shelves is double to triple normal levels, according to Second Harvest Heartland, the state's largest food bank.

As hunger has spread, the federal government has sought to give states more flexibility in how they administer food benefits to low-income households.

On Thursday, the DHS announced that Minnesotans can now use their food stamp benefits to buy groceries online using their EBT cards. Previously, people who received food stamps, also known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), had to use their benefits in person, which increased their risk of exposure to the coronavirus.

For now, Walmart and Amazon are the only online retailers approved by the USDA for online purchases in Minnesota. The DHS, which oversees the program, is encouraging other retailers to seek approval from the federal government so that food stamp recipients have more options.

Chris Serres • 612-673-4308

Twitter: @chrisserres