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Thursday March 22, 2018

All is not as it appears in this debate, new studies suggest

Three myths about food deserts

The March issue of the peer-reviewed journal Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy is a special issue on healthy lifestyles, particularly focused on the perennial issue of obesity. It has several interesting studies that refute some common assumptions, including:

No time for fast food?

USDA researcher Karen Hamrick, working with Ohio University Economics Professor Charlene Kalenkoski, examined numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ American Time Use Survey data, which measures all activities in sampled households over a 24-hour period, matched against results from adults 20 years or older who had completed the the Eating and Health Module of the BLS survey. Hamrick discovered that consumers who face “time poverty,” that is, those who had a shortage of discretionary time left over after taking care of the necessities like sleeping, personal grooming and work, had as you might expect, different eating patterns than not-time-poor individuals. The surprise in her findings? Being time-poor was associated with a lower likelihood people would purchase fast food. Those time-poor individuals were 4 percent less apt to turn to fast food. Though Hamrick’s study didn’t attempt to gauge the stated reasons for choosing fast food or not, she guesses her seemingly illogical finding may owe to the fact that fast food involves losing time by waiting in line. She did find that time-poor people tended to eat less, which helps support her hypothesis, eating and drinking about 2.6 times per day vs. 2.9 for the full sample. One bit of good news: Hamrick suggests that if time-poor consumers are too rushed to either prepare meals or to stand in line at a fast-food restaurant, the next logical source of their meals may in fact be prepared meals from grocery stores.

Food stamps in food deserts…where they end up.

USDA researchers looked into whether increasing the amount of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefit levels would incentivize inner city poor to travel to outlying areas to shop for food at supermarkets and big boxes, or simply spend the additional funds at local alternatives. The authors used monthly county-level data on SNAP redemptions by store type over a three-year period and mathematically modeled the percentage of SNAP redemptions at superstores as a function of maximum monthly benefit levels, after accounting for confounding factors like food prices, store density by store type and other economic and policy factors. They found that increasing SNAP dollars can potentially encourage SNAP participants to make use of lower-cost, less accessible food shopping alternatives, however that willingness is heavily influenced by the cost of getting to the stores. Their suggestion? In light of the apparent lack of political will to increase SNAP funding, government should consider expanding flexibility to convert a portion of their benefits as “access dollars”—that is, allowing them to use them to buy gas, bus fare and other transportation costs.

Are school kids fatter in food deserts?

Arkansas ag economists examined the relationship between food deserts and child obesity, using data on obesity rates in a panel of 230 school districts in Arkansas, determined from school children’s measured height and weight. The school districts were classified as food desert districts by developing district-level measures of food access based on food store location data. Controlling for a variety of other factors that could confound the results, the researchers estimated there was no statistically significant difference in childhood obesity between schoolkids in food deserts or not in food deserts. “So should private and public initiatives targeting the food desert and childhood obesity issue be discarded, given our results?” the researchers asked. On the contrary, they argue exactly the opposite: “Given the importance and enormous attention this issue has received, not only from researchers from various fields but also from policy-makers and the current First Lady of the United States, there is no question that more work is needed….”

Do more groceries equate to more fruits and vegetables?

Research by ag economists at University of Nebraska-Lincoln analyzed how changes in income and food access affected actual purchases of fruits and vegetables by households. The authors used a the Nielsen Home-Scan panel data set to study the actual shopping patterns of households and attempt to disentangle the effects of food access from the effects of income. Their results suggest that improving access to food would, in fact, make the non-poor residents in a food desert buy slightly more fruits and vegetables. However, increasing access to food stores, according their study, would only be expected to cause the poor people in the former food desert to increase their consumption of unhealthy foods, with no change—or even a decrease—in consumption of healthier foods like fruits and vegetables. Government policy actions aimed at alleviating healthy food accessibility or affordability problems in isolation are not likely to be effective, the authors caution.


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The farm and ranch families represented by Nebraska Farm Bureau are proud sponsors of the Farmer Goes to Market program. We take great pride in supporting Nebraska's agricultural foundation. A key part of that effort is to make sure we produce safe and affordable food. This newsletter is an important part of our effort to connect the two most important parts of the food chain -- the farmer and the grocer -- with the goal of increasing consumer awareness and information about how their food is raised in Nebraska.

Supported by the Nebraska Corn Board

The Nebraska Corn Board, on behalf of 23,000 corn farmers in Nebraska, invests in market development, research, promotion and education of corn and value-added products. The board aims to work closely with the farmer-to-consumer food chain, to educate everyone about the role corn has in our everyday healthy lives. The Nebraska Corn Board is proud to sponsor the Farmer Goes to Market program to help bring its mission of expanding demand and value of Nebraska corn to the consumer, through the strongest touch point in that chain: the Nebraska retail grocer.

In patnership with the Nebraska Grocery Industry Association

The Nebraska Grocery Industry Association was formed in 1903 by a group of Omaha grocery store owners, wholesalers and vendors to allow them to promote independent food merchants and members of the food industry, and to promote education and cooperation among its membership. NGIA continues to represent grocery store owners and operators, along with wholesalers and vendors located throughout Nebraska, by promoting their success through proactive government relations, innovative solutions and quality services. NGIA offers efficient and economical programs. NGIA also lobbies on both a state and national level, ensuring that the voice of the food industry in Nebraska is heard by our representatives.

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