Improving Diet in Low-Income Neighborhoods

Leveraging the Food Environment for Change

by Christina Y. Huang

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Chronic diseases are a serious public health problem in America, but risk for many chronic diseases can be modified by diet. The "food environment" (the physical environment, or settings, in which there are opportunities to eat or buy foods) has been identified as having a potential impact on diet and health outcomes. Recent policies propose changing the food environment, for example, building new supermarkets in poor neighborhoods. This dissertation examines the role of the food environment as a policy lever to improve diet, with a focus on sugar sweetened beverage (SSB) consumption.

Using data from the Pittsburgh Hill/Homewood Research on Eating, Shopping & Health (PHRESH) study, I looked at whether aspects of the food environment — distance, density, shopping frequency, and store characteristics — were associated with adult SSB consumption and whether these relationships changed over time. I found no longitudinal associations and only one cross-sectional association between eating at fast food restaurants and higher SSB consumption.

In a subset of PHRESH participants with children (5-13 years old), I examined the role of the food environment on children's SSB consumption by considering whether in-store marketing characteristics influence both children's "pestering" and parents' purchase decisions about junk foods. The in-store marketing characteristics were not related to child or parent behaviors, however, frequency of children's pestering and home availability of soda were both positively associated with child soda consumption.

Finally, I described how the public discusses different policies to change the food environment by analyzing online comments about a policy to decrease access to unhealthy foods (by limiting portion sizes of SSBs) and a policy to increase access to healthy foods (by expanding infrastructure for food stores). Comments about limiting portion sizes used negative language and frequently used words like "freedom", "rights", and "choice", while comments about expanding food stores used narrative language and suggested barriers to healthy eating.

Taken together, this dissertation provides a better understanding of the food environment, identifies needs for future research, and offers policymakers recommendations for how to improve diet and health for a vulnerable population.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One


  • Chapter Two

    Background and Literature Review

  • Chapter Three

    Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Consumption and the Food Environment

  • Chapter Four

    In-store Marketing Practices and Children's Diet

  • Chapter Five

    Public opinions on the food environment

  • Chapter Six


Research conducted by

This document was submitted as a dissertation in April 2016 in partial fulfillment of the requirements of the doctoral degree in public policy analysis at the Pardee RAND Graduate School. The faculty committee that supervised and approved the dissertation consisted of Jeanne Ringel (Chair), Tamara Dubowitz, and Karen Flórez.

This report is part of the RAND Corporation Dissertation series. Pardee RAND dissertations are produced by graduate fellows of the Pardee RAND Graduate School, the world's leading producer of Ph.D.'s in policy analysis. The dissertations are supervised, reviewed, and approved by a Pardee RAND faculty committee overseeing each dissertation.

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