Monday, June 19, 2017

Food Facts: Food Insecurity and Food Deserts

According to the USDA, "an estimated 12.7 percent of American households were food insecure at least some time during the year in 2015, meaning they lacked access to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members."

Here are a few more notes:

1) 5.0 percent of U.S. households (6.3 million households) had very low food security
2) There were sizable differences by state
3)   ~59% used SNAP, WIC, or the national school lunch program in the previous month
4)  The median food-secure household spent 27 percent more for food than the typical food-insecure household

Prices Matter

In a 2013 Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy article, researchers found a significant impact of local food prices on food insecurity developing a novel index of local food prices:

“We find that the average effect of food prices on the probability of food insecurity is positive and significant: a one-standard deviation increase in food prices is associated with increases of 2.7, 2.6, and 3.1 percentage points in household, adult, and child food insecurity, respectively. These marginal effects amount to 5.0%, 5.1%, and 12.4% increases in the prevalence of food insecurity for SNAP households, adults, and children, respectively. These results suggest that indexing SNAP benefits to local food prices could improve the ability of the program to reduce food insecurity and economic hardship more generally in areas with high food prices.”

Food Insecurity, SNAP, and Health Outcomes

In 2012, researchers publishing in the Journal of the American Statistical Association found that SNAP can have positive mitigating effects on the health of children.

"Under stronger but plausible assumptions used to address the selection and classification error problems, we find that commonly cited relationships between SNAP and poor health outcomes provide a misleading picture about the true impacts of the program. Our tightest bounds identify favorable impacts of SNAP on child health."

Gundersen (2015) finds a relationship between food insecurity and health outcomes for children and seniors.

"after confounding risk factors were controlled for, studies found that food-insecure children are at least twice as likely to report being in fair or poor health and at least 1.4 times more likely to have asthma, compared to food-secure children; and food-insecure seniors have limitations in activities of daily living comparable to those of food-secure seniors fourteen years older. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) substantially reduces the prevalence of food insecurity and thus is critical to reducing negative health outcomes"

What we can conclude from this research is that  prices matter - while policies that help reduce or subsidize the purchase price of food can help reduce food insecurity and provide positive outcomes, policies that increase prices could have the opposite effect.

What about food deserts?

Over at the UofI Policy Matters blog, Craig Gundersen and others discuss the relationship between food deserts and prices. They cite a few studies:

Availability And Prices Of Foods Across Stores And Neighborhoods: The Case Of New Haven, Connecticut. Health Aff September 2008 vol. 27 no. 5 1381-1388

The above was a case study looking at stores across lower vs higher income neighborhoods. They find lower quality and fewer options in the lower income stores.

Does Healthy Food Cost More in Poor Neighborhoods? An Analysis of Retail Food Cost and Spatial Competition. Patrick L. Hatzenbuehler, Jeffrey M. Gillespie, and Carol E. O’Neil. Agricultural and Resource Economics Review 41/1 (April 2012) 43–56 

The above was an interesting study that found that the impacts of spatial distribution of store locations impacted consumption, although there were no price effects.

 In their blog post, the authors discuss how they develop a local price index for food bundles and compare prices for areas that are and are not classified as food deserts.

"Our findings suggest that living in a food desert affects the overall food prices faced by households to a small extent when consumers can shop within their home census tracts and in contiguous census tracts. The difference in prices is largely driven by differences in available variety. As such, while higher food prices are associated with higher rates of food insecurity, the results of our work suggest that living in a food desert is unlikely to influence food insecurity to a great extent"

In their related paper, presented at the 2015 Agricultural and Applied Economics Association and Western Agricultural Economics Association annual meeting you can read more.


Alisha Coleman-Jensen, Matthew P. Rabbitt, Christian A. Gregory, and Anita Singh.
Household Food Security in the United States in 2015, ERR-215, U.S. Department of
Agriculture, Economic Research Service, September 2016.

Christian A. Gregory, Alisha Coleman-Jensen; Do High Food Prices Increase Food Insecurity in the United States?. Appl Econ Perspect Policy 2013; 35 (4): 679-707. doi: 10.1093/aepp/ppt024

Kreider, B., Pepper, J. V., Gundersen, C., & Jolliffe, D. (2012). Identifying the effects of SNAP (Food Stamps) on child health outcomes when participation is endogenous and misreported. Journal of the American Statistical Association, 107(499), 958-975. DOI: 10.1080/01621459.2012.682828

Gundersen C, Ziliak J. Food insecurity and health outcomes. Health Affairs 2015;34(11):1830-1839.

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