Neighborhood Food Environments and Body Mass Index

The Importance of In-Store Contents

Published in: American Journal of Preventive Medicine, v. 37, no. 3, Sep. 2009, p. 214-219

Posted on RAND.org on September 01, 2009

by Donald Rose, Paul L. Hutchinson, Nicholas Bodor, Chris M. Swalm, Thomas Farley, Deborah A. Cohen, Janet C. Rice

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BACKGROUND: Most public health studies on the neighborhood food environment have focused on types of stores and their geographic placement, yet marketing research has long documented the influence of in-store shelf-space on consumer behavior. PURPOSE: This paper combines these two strands of research to test whether the aggregate availability of specific foods in a neighborhood is associated with the BMIs of its residents. METHODS: Fielded from October 2004 to August 2005, this study combines mapping of retail food outlets, in-store surveys, and telephone interviews of residents from 103 randomly sampled urban census tracts in southeastern Louisiana. Linear shelf-space of fruits, vegetables, and energy-dense snack foods was measured in 307 food stores in the study tracts. Residential addresses, demographic information, and heights and weights were obtained from 1243 respondents through telephone interviews. Cumulative shelf-space of foods within defined distances of each respondent was calculated using observations from the in-store survey and probability-based assignments of shelf-space to all unobserved stores in the area. RESULTS: After controlling for sociodemographic variables, income, and car ownership, regression analysis, conducted in 2008, showed that cumulative shelf-space availability of energy-dense snack foods was positively, although modestly, associated with BMI. A 100-meter increase in shelf-space of these foods within 1 kilometer of a respondent's household was associated with an additional 0.1 BMI points. Fruit and vegetable shelf-space was not significantly related to BMI. CONCLUSIONS: Interventions that seek to improve the neighborhood food environment may need to focus on more than just increasing access to healthy foods, because the results suggest that the availability of energy-dense snack foods plays a role in weight status.

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