R&D notes

Restaurant review: New York Grab & Go

Jonathan Robert Pool

New York City offers free meals to everybody. How’s the food?


Nonprofits in New York City have been giving away food since the late 1700s. To whom? The poor.

But that has changed. In 2020 the city itself began offering free meals to every human being in New York—universal single-payer food. Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed a COVID-19 Food Czar, Kathryn Garcia, to create, operationalize and oversee a structure for working New Yorkers to get the food they need during this pandemic. Within days, under the auspices of this GetFoodNYC program, the city’s Department of Education was dispensing Grab & Go meals, gratis, at almost 500 locations to any and all comers. Show up, choose from the menu, and take as many meals as you want, no questions asked. (The Department also converted its school breakfast and lunch services to a parallel grab-and-go service for students and their families with the same meals at the same locations.)

By June 2020, the mayor said it was providing about a half million meals per weekday, while a companion program was delivering about a million meals per day. According to the food czar, about 30 food providers, restaurants, caterers, farms, [and] consorti[a] were participating.

In July 2021 Grab & Go is still operational, and the city says it is committed to continuing this approach at least every summer.

Grab & Go deserves to be understood as a major take-out restaurant chain, run by the government, with $0 as the price of every meal. Its restaurants merit the same scrutiny as any other, starting with the food itself.


So, how’s the food?


Bundled meal
plastic bag containing one meal
Most Grab & Go meals are bundled into whole-meal bags, so you can pick up a meal (or two) in one hand. No need for serial decisions on appetizer, main course, desert, and beverage. The meals are ready when you arrive, so there is no wait. Almost every meal includes a napkin and plastic teaspoon. In these ways, they are convenient.

But the bundling is also inconvenient:


Grab & Go offers a choice of meals, including vegetarian, Kosher, and Halal. But each of those categories usually describes exactly one meal, so there is little intra-category variety. And New Yorkers who adhere to vegan or organic diets are out of luck. Only some components of some meals are vegan, and nothing is ever organic.

Breakfasty main dishes rotate among dry cereal, bagels with cream cheese, mini-waffles, and occasionally banana bread. You can usually choose among lunch and supper main dishes such as beef, turkey and cheese, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, hamburgers, bean and cheese burritos, bagel pizza, and hummus with pretzels.

Mini-waffle breakfast
pouch of Mini-Waffles, cup of Mini-Wheats, cup of grape juice, carton of fat-free milk, and sleeve containing a spoon and a napkin
meat patty on whole-wheat bun
Bagel pizza
bagel pizza in a plastic bag

Hummus meal
meal containing hummus, baby carrots, 2 pouches of pretzels, chocolate milk, apple and peach sauce, a paper napkin, and a plastic spoon

Burrito meal
meal containing a burrito, baby carrots, a pouch of apple slices, and a box of UHT chocolate milk
slices of turkey cold cut and cheese on pita

Accompanying the main dishes are packaged fruit dishes, usually bagged apple slices or cartons of apple-and-peach sauce or fruit juice, usually grape, apple and pear, orange, or orange and tangerine.

While this variety might at first seem adequate, the vegetables exhibit shocking monotony. Until June of 2021, the only vegetable in about 80% of the meals was Bolthouse Farms baby carrots. Then suddenly cherry tomatoes began to claim the title of one-and-only vegetable during some weeks. But Grab & Go never served anything leafy or cruciferous. No cabbage, bell pepper, spinach, avocado, radish, onion, cauliflower, squash, eggplant, or olives, to name a few omissions. The advice of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020–2025, to eat Vegetables of all types—dark green; red and orange; beans, peas, and lentils; starchy; and other vegetables does not seem to have guided the meal planners.

On one occasion I was offered chicken with broccoli. It turned out to be chicken with french fries. This is not uncommon. When you ask what the meals contain, you may get inaccurate answers.

But there are rare exceptions. Out of a dozen meals, you might find one with a deviant vegetable, such as chickpeas, corn, or white or red or green beans. Out of another dozen, a genuine whole apple or clementine may turn up.

French fries
advertised as broccoli
aluminum tray with breaded chicken balls in the half-size pocket and french fries in both quarter-size pockets
Mozarella sticks with
green beans and corn
mozarella sticks with green beans and corn

two whole clementine oranges


The interior packaging is often imprinted with best-by or sell-by dates. Those dates are always in the future. But the time until expiration varies greatly, from a day to months.

So the food is fresh, as in unexpired. But the produce has almost always undergone some post-harvest manufacturing.


The taste of almost everything in a Grab & Go meal is mild—others would say simple, plain, or bland. Some manufactured mélanges (such as the turkey, which is really a slice of turkey sausage) hardly taste at all. That is not entirely a complaint. There is no risk of over-adulteration. No need to worry about excessive pepper, ginger, or cilantro. Some meals include pouches of mustard and/or mayonnaise, but otherwise you provide your own spices. There is one major exception: the jalapeño-laced burritos.

Taste-wise, the meals avoid offense. Conversely, they avoid excitement. Adjectives like succulent and exquisite just don’t apply.


The kitchen-packaged food seems wholesome, and the factory-labeled food is partly strong on whole-grain, low-sugar, low-salt virtues. But the breakfast cereals are sugary (sweetened or frosted) versions of their classic siblings.

Some of the packaged food is not labeled for individual sale, so discovering the ingredients requires research. The Cabo Primo burritos, for example, are identified only with a faint stock code 71674. While the manufacturer does not admit to using that code, the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education fully documents that product, reassuring you, for example, that it satisfies the Whole Grain-Rich Criteria of the National School Lunch Program.

Environmentally benign?

Grab & Go has contributed to the COVID-19 packaging-waste epidemic. Its strategy of embedded packaging wastes plastic in two ways:

The strategy of whole-meal bundling likewise produces waste:

Restaurants often combine a main dish with vegetables, but they usually give customers a separate choice of beverage and dessert. Grab & Go promotes food waste by combining all these into a bundle. Eat what you like, discard the rest.


In sum, the meals at Grab & Go are mediocre: in the middle range between excellent and atrocious. If you are happy to eat almost anything, they are good enough. If you insist on delicious, pesticide-free, richly varied, or zero-waste nutrition, they are inadequate.

Why the mediocrity? One hypothesis: Grab & Go was designed for demand management. Here is that story: There was an explosion of food insecurity in 2020. Officials wanted to create a distribution system that starving people could use and people at risk of deportation would use. So the system was designed to dispense meals at no cost and with no requirement to identify oneself. But the city could not feed three meals a day to eight million New Yorkers, so it needed to limit the demand. How? Make the meals mediocre.

The idea that the food is mediocre by design gets some support from the food czar herself. It’s very important that you are getting something that you will eat, she said. So, the stated aspiration was edibility, rather than adorability. And edibility could be calibrated so that the desired number of meals would be demanded. Only the sufficiently desperate would claim meals. Tellingly, the food czar did not claim to practice dogfooding: She did not say My staff and I enjoy the Grab & Go meals ourselves; we think you’ll savor them as much as we do. Food czar Garcia resigned on 7 September 2020 (to run for mayor) and was not replaced. She declined to comment on a draft of this article.

But there is more to the story. To ensure moderate demand, Grab & Go was also made difficult to discover and access. Publicize the program only enough, and make obtaining the meals sufficiently cumbersome, to keep away all but a manageable number of customers.

Grab & Go was made hard to patronize in several ways:

NYC Food Policy, when asked why Grab & Go was being kept such a secret, said (by email) We make all efforts to raise awareness about our feeding sites. That perfunctory and clearly incorrect answer is consistent with an intent to manage rather than expand demand.

The weak demand for Grab & Go meals was noted by the City of New York Independent Budget Office in a July 2020 study. Its report found Grab & Go locations well placed for low-income neighborhood penetration and proximity to students, but noted that patronage was too low to satisfy more than a fraction of the need. Did that revelation trigger efforts to boost demand? Apparently not. That complacency seems to point to demand moderation as a feature, not a bug.

Finally, customer-obsessed services ask patrons to comment. Was everything satisfactory? What could we do better? Would you recommend us to your friends? Grab & Go does not. Implicit message: We don’t care what you think.

A similar demand-suppressing design in the parallel service for school students was described in a February 2021 report on the economics of Grab & Go by David Rubel. According to Rubel, food mediocrity, meager marketing, and a limit of 3 meals per trip stunted the demand. In fact, he says that until early 2021 the food assortment was even more boring than described above, because the main dishes were limited to cold sandwiches.

From meh to great?

The design of Grab & Go has evidently limited its impact, but is that an economic necessity? No, says Rubel: Satisfying more demand, at least from students, would cost the city nothing. The student program gets federal reimbursements and, according to Rubel, could triple its size before reaching the reimbursement limit. The design flaws, he asserts, have resulted in massive rejection of the service even by undernourished persons, leaving about 80% of the potential beneficiaries unserved and about half a billion dollars annually of federal funds on the table, unspent. Rubel says that other cities have avoided these defects and earned much larger market shares and federal reimbursements.

The same analysis may apply for everybody, not only students. Federal funds are available for mass feeding. So, is Grab & Go irrationally wasting an opportunity to feed New York City at federal expense? The answer is not easy to find. There are multiple federal programs subsidizing state and local food provision. Their regulations have become more complex. For example, the United States Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service has issued about 140 COVID-19 waivers & flexibilities for New York State or City. Grab & Go does not disclose how it covers its costs. You might reasonably ask, when you grab a free meal, who is paying for it, but Grab & Go does not tell you. As Rubel points out, the student portion alone is potentially a $60-million-per-month program, and yet there are no periodic reports on the finances or performance of Grab & Go. The New York City Comptroller has issued four reports on the Department of Education since 1 March 2020, but none on the Department’s food programs, including Grab & Go.

What if the city awoke and decided to make Grab & Go a smashing success? Could it? Rubel says yes: Advertise pervasively and keep providing a mix of reheatable and cold dishes. Those recommendations are reasonable, but I doubt they would suffice. Reheatability does not amount to quality. Hot food is not necessarily good, let alone superb. And, in addition to the scale of marketing, the content of marketing matters. If those who learn of it classify Grab & Go as the next step up from dumpster diving, they are not to blame. New York City is teeming with experts who could reshape the image of Grab & Go to fashionable, cool, retro, woke, civic duty, or whatever would jump-start demand, create buzz, and establish higher expectations. The Department of Education could solicit customer comments and suggestions. Menu experiments and customer-oriented adjustments to the meals and the service could ensue. The acid test: Quality reaches a level at which the customer (and thus stakeholder) base is economically integrated, with a mixture of need and choice motivating patronage.

The makeover will be complete when you stop feeling guilty for taking a meal from Grab & Go, start feeling left-out for not eating some of its meals, respond thoughtfully to its customer-satisfaction surveys, and get invited to a focus group to help make it even better.