EFFECTIVENESS OF HEALTHIER FOOD OPTIONS
ECU researchers studying effectiveness of healthier food options in N.C. stores
Researchers from East Carolina University have been awarded grant funding to study the effectiveness of a program to improve access to healthy food options in North Carolina.
The two-year, $250,000 grant through the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Policies for Action research program will provide funding for a team of researchers – led by principal investigator Dr. Stephanie Pitts, a professor in ECU’s Department of Public Health – to evaluate the impact of the state of North Carolina’s Healthy Food Small Retailer Program.
The program, which was funded through the state legislature in 2016 and administered by the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, aims to help small retailers in the state’s food deserts overcome common barriers they face in stocking nutrient-dense foods by providing reimbursement for refrigeration, freezer and shelving equipment.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food deserts as areas where there is:
- Limited access to sources of healthy food, such as supermarkets or grocery stores.
- Insufficient individual-level resources, such as family income or vehicle availability.
- Limited neighborhood-level resources, such as the average income and public transportation.
“Low population contributions to it,” Pitts said. “In rural areas, a lot of times it’s more difficult to get to public transportation or people might not have access to their vehicle and then it’s further to a grocery store.”
Initial research, funded by a Brody Brothers Foundation grant, began with four participating stores and four control stores throughout eastern North Carolina. The data collected from that research was used for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grant proposal, Pitts said.
Store customers who agreed to be surveyed received gift cards as compensation for their time spent in the study.
“I think people have been interested in it and excited to take part in it. So we’ve had a good response so far,” Pitts said.
For the next two years, Pitts and the team of researchers – which includes fellow ECU researchers Dr. Ronny Bell and Dr. Ann Rafferty, Department of Public Health, and Dr. Qiang Wu, Department of Biostatistics, as well as researchers from North Carolina State University, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, UNC-Greensboro, University of Minnesota and a consultant from Georgetown University – will work to answer the following questions:
- Do the stores indeed end up stocking healthier foods?
- Do customers purchase healthier food and beverage options if they have access to them?
- What is the dietary impact on customers over time?
- Is there any financial incentive or return on investment for the store owners to stock healthier foods?
“It’s important to figure out the public health impact of this funding in food deserts in North Carolina,” Pitts said. “Because ultimately, we want to help improve the health of North Carolinians, and contribute to the science-base to answer the question: ‘Do small changes in healthy foods offered in corner stores help contribute to a cultural shift and overall broader impact on health in underserved areas?’”