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Our Food Choices are Influenced By Local Food Cost and Availability

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Posted: Wednesday, January 29, 2014 4:16 pm

Consumer choices about food spending and diet are likely to be influenced by the accessibility and affordability of food retailers...

Some public health advocates have argued that falling real, or inflation-adjusted, prices for many high-calorie foods encourage people to buy and consume more of these foods, leading to poor diet quality and rising rates of obesity. A closer look at how consumers respond to food price variation reveals how food prices affect people’s food choices, and their waistlines. 

The United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Services (ERS) is a national leader in measuring the people and places facing barriers to accessing healthy and affordable food and conducts research examining the consequences of food access limitations on food spending, diet, and health. 

ERS conducts economic analyses of the extent and characteristics of people and places that lack access to healthy and affordable foods, and the relationships between food access and food shopping and spending patterns, diet and health. 

Consumer choices about food spending and diet are likely to be influenced by the accessibility and affordability of food retailers--travel time to shopping, availability of healthy foods, and food prices.  Some people and places, especially those with low-income, may face greater barriers in accessing healthy and affordable food retailers, which may negatively affect diet and food security. 

Research shows the price of food is a major factor for consumers on limited budgets. For most U.S. consumers, food choices are also determined by a combination of food preferences, interest in nutrition, need for convenience, and general food knowledge. Consumers can have strong preferences for specific foods, in part because food provides more than simple nutrients and necessary energy. In many cases, food is closely linked to emotions through its role in customs, traditions, and other social interactions. Researchers at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health conducted a series of experiments in school cafeterias and found that school-age children changed their purchases when prices of healthy snacks were lowered and/or prices of less healthy snacks were raised. For example, when the prices of fruit and baby carrots were reduced by 50 percent, sales to high school students increased fourfold and twofold, respectively.

ERS research finds that retail food prices also vary geographically. Many foods are produced in specific geographic areas, which can affect delivery costs, particularly to more distant destinations. Geographic variation in the distribution and concentration of store types (e.g., grocery stores versus corner markets versus membership club stores) can also affect food prices. Different store formats have different cost structures. In addition, each store type provides different services to its customers, affecting operating costs. Other sources of geographic price variation include differences in rent for store space and labor costs.

Consumers consider absolute prices when choosing which foods to buy, but they also consider prices relative to those of alternative or complementary products. Like absolute prices, relative prices can vary geographically. 

See Food Choice, Page 6C

From Page 5C

The price of soft drinks may be fairly stable across the country and over time, but if the price of milk, juice, or another alternative beverage falls, soft drinks become relatively more expensive to the consumer, even though their absolute price did not change. Data compiled by ERS show that in 2010, low-fat milk was 34 percent cheaper than soft drinks in Salt Lake City; in New York City, it was over 21 percent more expensive than soft drinks. ERS research also has found that higher prices for high-carbohydrate foods lower medical spending among diabetics, and that lower prices for vegetables and whole grains and higher prices for processed foods and whole milk lower bad cholesterol among adults.

The data also shows nearly half of Liberty County, particularly the east side, is considered a “Food Dessert” where those areas lack grocery stores, transportation to grocers or farmer’s markets that sell healthy and affordable food items that contribute to a healthy diet or safe consumption of fresh food. 

ERS also provides publicly available mapping tools for indicators of the food environment that allow users to create maps and download data--the Food Environment Atlas and the Food Desert Locator.

Food Desert Locator presents a spatial overview of where food-desert census tracts are located; provides selected population characteristics of food-desert census tracts; and offers data on food-desert census tracts that can be downloaded for community planning or research purposes.  You are able to create maps showing food-desert census tracts; view statistics on selected population characteristics in food-desert census tracts; and download census-tract level data from food-desert tracts.

Food Environment Atlas reviews food environment factors--such as store/restaurant proximity, food prices, food and nutrition assistance programs, and community characteristics--interact to influence food choices and diet quality. Research is beginning to document the complexity of these interactions, but more is needed to identify causal relationships and effective policy interventions.  The objectives of the Atlas are to assemble statistics on food environment indicators to stimulate research on the determinants of food choices and diet quality, and to provide a spatial overview of a community’s ability to access healthy food and its success in doing so.  

In short, price does matter, but not more than the personal food choices we make daily; it is not the only factor to consider when watching our waistline.  

For more information on USDA Economic Research Service tools, visit their website:


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