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ERS plans to release five descriptive research reports based on FoodAPS data that examine food demand relationships that previously could not be investigated in detail because the requisite data did not exist:

  1. Food purchase and acquisition patterns of U.S. households,
  2. Nutritional quality of purchased foods,
  3. Patterns of food acquisition and food shopping behavior in food-secure and food-insecure households,
  4. The relationship between measures of food access and households’ food acquisition patterns, and
  5. A comparison of food purchase and acquisition patterns between SNAP households and other low-income households.

More in-depth examination of these and other research questions that address food policy issues will follow, both by ERS economists and outside researchers. ERS plans to make the FoodAPS data available to external researchers at the same time as the descriptive reports are published. Because the data include confidential information, however, ERS has the legal obligation to prevent accidental or willful disclosure of information that might identify a survey respondent. Accordingly, external researchers must first submit their research plans for approval and agree to ERS's review of all research findings for disclosure risk. Controlled access to the restricted data will then be provided. Similar confidentiality protections will be followed for ERS researchers (see Data Access).

ERS plans to release a public use database at a later date if it can be determined that publically available data would not create too high a risk for disclosure of confidential information. Not only do all identifiers need to be deleted from a public use file, but a number of variables need to modified or even deleted to ensure that sample sizes in table cells would not be small enough to risk identifying a household within that cell.

Food purchase and acquisition patterns of U.S. households

Most Americans do not consume a healthy diet as recommended by the Federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans. To assist in determining potential policy changes that could promote the purchase of healthier foods, we must understand how consumers obtain their food and how acquisition patterns vary across population subgroups and in relation to environmental characteristics. This report will provide a broad overview of the food purchase and acquisition patterns of U.S. households, answering such fundamental questions as where they shop, what they buy, and how much they pay. In addition, because research has shown that the nutritional quality of food away from home (FAFH) generally is less than that of food at home (FAH), understanding the factors that relate to different households’ relative purchase of FAH and FAFH is crucial to promoting smarter choices regarding food acquisition patterns.

The report will focus on answering these research questions:

  1. For FAH, at which types of food stores (for example, supermarkets, big-box stores, convenience stores, and specialty shops) do households of different income levels shop? What is the allocation of food expenditures across these sources? Do households of different income levels pay different prices for the same foods?
  2. To what extent are U.S. households of different income levels acquiring "free" or subsidized food, including food from food banks, home-delivered meals for the elderly or disabled, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) purchases, free or reduced-price meals at school, and meals and snacks at the homes of other family members?
  3. For both FAH and FAFH, what types of food are being purchased or otherwise acquired? How are U.S. households allocating their food expenditures among meat products, fruits, vegetables, breads and bakery items, beverages, dairy products, ready-to-eat products, and so forth? Among fruits and vegetables, what is the distribution among canned, frozen, and fresh items?
  4. How does allocation of the food budget by source and type vary depending on the number of adults and children in the household and the presence of elderly family members?
  5. Because food environments vary geographically, the report will compare acquisition patterns across the four regions of the United States.

This report will provide the basis for further research into factors affecting differences in food acquisition patterns, including the possible impact of food allergies; special diets; knowledge about health, nutrition and diet; and the interaction between income and relative food prices. In that research, specific hypotheses about these relationships will be tested using multivariate statistical techniques.

Nutritional quality of purchased foods

This report will characterize the nutritional quality of households’ food acquisitions, whether they are purchased, paid for with SNAP benefits, or obtained for free or at a reduced price. ERS researchers have examined food intake/consumption data from surveys and found that the nutritional quality of the food individuals eat differs depending on the source. Food prepared from home supplies is generally nutritionally superior to food obtained from restaurants, fast-food outlets, take-out places, and other sources. While differences in the nutritional characteristics of foods consumed from different food sources are known, nobody has examined the nutritional differences in foods purchased or acquired from different sources because data were not available. FoodAPS will fill this void. The ability to examine the nutritional quality of purchased as opposed to consumed food is important because purchases reflect the primary consumer decision-making step relative to healthful consumption, which is perhaps the most important stage for policy intervention. FoodAPS data also will allow research about the relative contributions of food quality, price, access, and consumer knowledge to purchase decisions.

This report will examine nutrients and food groups that are emphasized in recent Federal dietary guidance. These include, but are not limited to, sodium, fat and saturated fat, calcium, dietary fiber, vegetables and fruits by type, whole grains, and others. Food source will be first classified into two major categories—FAH and FAFH. The FAH category will be further disaggregated by store type, and the FAFH category will be disaggregated into fast-food restaurants, restaurants with wait service, schools, vending machines, and other sources.  The study also will compare the nutritional quality of acquired foods for households with varying levels of income, participation in food assistance programs, household characteristics, and access to different food sources (for example, supermarkets, convenience stores, fast-food restaurants).

This descriptive report will include tables addressing the primary research questions:

  1. How does the nutritional quality of acquired foods differ by food source, such as supermarkets, convenience stores, fast-food establishments, schools, and full-service restaurants?
  2. How does the nutritional quality of acquired foods differ by indicators of access to food sources, such as the availability of a vehicle and proximity to stores of different types?
  3. How does the nutritional quality of acquired foods differ by household income, participation in Federal food and nutrition assistance programs, and demographic characteristics?
  4. How does the nutritional quality of acquired foods differ by the household respondent’s knowledge about health, nutrition, and diet?

The tables in this descriptive report will form the foundation for further research into factors affecting differences in the nutritional quality of acquired foods, including relative distances to local supermarkets, convenience stores, and farmers’ markets; price differentials at the local level between healthy and less-healthy foods; and the educational level, age, and gender of the household’s main food shopper.

Patterns of food acquisition and food shopping behavior in food-secure and food-insecure households

An inherent characteristic of food insecurity is that households experience reductions in the quality of food available and, in more severe cases, in the quantity of food available for household members. Important questions include whether these reductions in the quality and quantity of food available in food-insecure households result, in part, from the type of stores at which they shop, the distance they travel to shop for food, how often they shop for food, and other shopping behaviors. These questions can now be answered for the first time because the FoodAPS data contain information both on the food security status of households and on their food purchases and acquisitions from all sources.

Specific food shopping behaviors to be examined include the number of times in a week households eat out, the number of meals households eat together at home, how often a grocery list is used while shopping, and whether households refer to Nutrition Facts panels while shopping. 

This report will focus on answering these research questions:

  1. In the FoodAPS sample of households, is the level of food security associated with the quality and quantity of foods obtained? Is this variation consistent with prior research?
  2. How do food-secure and food-insecure households compare in terms of the types of stores where they do most of their food shopping? For instance, does greater reliance on convenience stores rather than grocery stores for grocery shopping relate to a reduction in quality of food acquired in food-insecure households, an increase in the cost of purchased foods, or both?
  3. How do the shopping behaviors of food-secure and food-insecure households compare?
  4. How do food-secure and food-insecure households compare in terms of how far they travel to purchase food, how they get to the store, and their usual out-of-pocket costs incurred for transport?
  5. How does food security relate to the allocation of the household food budget to FAH and FAFH sources? How does it relate to the household’s local food environment?

This report will lay the basis for further research into factors affecting differences in food security among sampled households. Because FoodAPS is unique in collecting detailed data for both FAH and FAFH events as well as characteristics of each household’s local food environment, future research will focus on the interrelationship among characteristics of the local food environment; household decisions concerning where they shop for FAH and FAFH and what they purchase; and food security.

The relationship between measures of food access and households’ food acquisition patterns

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. Important policy questions include the following:

  • What proportion of low-income households, and especially those without access to vehicles, reside in areas with no local food retailers that offer healthy food at affordable prices?
  • How often do low-income households that live near retailers offering healthy food at affordable prices choose to shop at closer stores with fewer healthy food options or higher prices?
  • What trade-offs do households appear to be making among food availability, price, and convenience? And, are these trade-offs affected by shoppers’ knowledge of the relationships between diet and health?

This report will present a series of tables that address the following research questions: 

  • Where do respondents shop for food (type of source or vendor, and geographic proximity to residence), and how do decisions about where to shop vary by household characteristics?
  • How long does it take for shoppers to travel to their main food stores? What mode(s) of transport do they use? What costs (time and out-of-pocket) do households incur when they shop for food? 
  • How do different indicators of access to food stores (vehicle availability, distance to the nearest store by store type) vary by household characteristics, food program participation status, and food security status?
  • How do shopping patterns such as the number of shopping trips, the number of stores visited, and the types of stores visited vary by indicators of food store access? and
  • How does knowledge of health, nutrition, and diet vary by measures of food access, and how does this knowledge relate to where households actually shop?

These questions will be answered descriptively using the FoodAPS survey data responses. In the future, more detail on each household’s local retail food environment will be available as geographic-based data from other sources are merged with the FoodAPS data, enabling more refined measures of access and the relative prices of food in different stores. Future research at ERS can then examine the above questions using measures that may have greater influence on consumer choices. In addition, future reports will use multivariate methods to test specific hypotheses about how food store access and the larger food environment are related to food shopping behavior. 

A comparison of food purchase and acquisition patterns between SNAP households and other low-income households

As the largest food and nutrition assistance program in the United States, SNAP was created to assist low-income households in accessing sufficient food and nutrition when facing financial hardship. Although there is widespread support for the program and research has shown it to be effective in reducing food insecurity, concerns exist about the healthfulness of the food choices made by program participants. Proposals have been circulated to impose regulations that would prevent participants from using benefits to purchase certain foods, such as sodas or other foods of questionable nutritional value. Rational public debate on this issue has been hindered by a lack of data on exactly what foods are purchased by SNAP participants, at what prices, and in what kinds of stores. 

This report will provide answers to the following questions. Comparisons will be made between the observed behavior of SNAP households and low-income, non-participating households and high-income households.

  • What food items do SNAP household members purchase or acquire from the following sources:
    • Purchased from food retailers primarily for preparation and consumption at home (FAH);
    • Purchased prepared foods and beverages from food service establishments (for example, restaurants, school cafeterias, and vending machines) primarily for consumption away from home (FAFH); and
    • Free foods from places such as food pantries, emergency kitchens, Meals-on-Wheels, home gardens or farms, fishing and hunting trips, gifts, compensation for work, and meals at the homes of family or friends.
  • What resources are used to acquire these foods (for example, SNAP benefits, other income, and credit cards)?

Another issue to be addressed in this report relates to SNAP benefit adequacy. There have long been anecdotes about SNAP benefits running out at the end of the month. Research using data from electronic benefit transfer (EBT) files has shown a general pattern of rapid drawdown of benefits with the average household spending half of its monthly benefits in the first week after receipt. Some studies have shown nutritional deficiencies among SNAP participants at month’s end. Yet, the program was designed to be supplemental. Understanding why participants, at the end of the month, are unable to supplement benefits with other resources will be advanced in this report by addressing this question:

  • For SNAP households, how do food acquisition patterns and funding sources for purchased items vary throughout the month in relation to when program benefits are received?

Because this is a descriptive study, ERS researchers will not be able to make inferences regarding the causes or impacts of observed behavioral differences between these subgroups. That will be the subject of future research using the FoodAPS data.

Last updated: Wednesday, July 31, 2013

For more information contact: John A. Kirlin and Mark Denbaly

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