New research center will explore ways to encourage healthy food choices

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iStock-forks1-280A new center will combine the expertise of researchers at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke University to develop strategies to promote healthy food choices, particularly among the 50 million Americans receiving federal food benefits.

The Duke-UNC USDA Center for Behavioral Economics and Healthy Food Choice Research (BECR Center) was established with a three-year, $1.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Matthew Harding, PhD, assistant professor at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy, will direct the program. The UNC-Chapel Hill team is led by Alice Ammerman, DrPH, professor of nutrition in the Gillings School of Global Public Health and director of the UNC Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention.

Since 2007, the number of Americans using USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), popularly known as food stamps, has nearly doubled, reaching almost one-sixth of the U.S. population at an annual cost of $79 billion. In addition, 8.7 million Americans participate each month, on average, in the Women, Infants, and Children Nutrition Program (WIC), more than half of whom are children.

“Our research will begin with ‘listening sessions’ with WIC and SNAP customers, retailers and program administrators to understand what needs and barriers they are facing,” Ammerman said.

Behavioral economics draws on research from the fields of economics and cognitive psychology to better understand consumer behavior and decision-making. The BECR Center will harness the power of huge datasets on consumer food choice behavior. Several large retailers supported the grant application, including Walmart and the California-based Fresh & Easy supermarket chain.

An existing USDA-funded research center at Cornell University has tested “behavioral nudges” in school cafeterias, including work done by Ammerman and colleagues on a project called “Taste Texting” to study a cell phone based ordering system for a healthier school lunch. “A lot of those things are good ideas, and they work,” Harding said, “so now we’re going to take them into a broader setting and try to change people’s behavior in stores, farmers’ markets and other places where people make food choices.”

Barbara K. Rimer, DrPH, dean of the Gillings School, said food insecurity continues to present huge challenges.

“We are delighted that this collaboration between UNC and Duke will bring together faculty with years of applied research experience with participants receiving benefits from federal nutrition programs,” Rimer said.

UNC partners, in addition to Ammerman, are Shu Wen Ng, PhD, and Molly DeMarco, PhD, research assistant professors of nutrition. DeMarco also is a research scientist and assistant director for evaluation at the UNC Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention.

In addition to Harding, other Duke collaborators are Kelly Brownell, PhD, Robert L. Flowers Professor of Public Policy and dean of Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy; Dan Ariely, PhD, James  B.  Duke  Professor  of  Psychology  and  Behavioral Economics; Gavan Fitzsimmons, PhD, R. David Thomas Professor of Marketing and Psychology;  and Peter Ubel, MD, professor of marketing.

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