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2017 Research Grants

Marianne Bitler

Is Food Assistance Like Cash for Retailers?

PI: Marianne Bitler, University of California, Davis

Project description: Food assistance is a large part of the food economy, with SNAP redemptions totaling $76 billion in 2013 (or more than 10% of sales at supermarkets). Yet, we know next to nothing about how food assistance shapes the retail food environment. We will fill this gap, using causal research strategies from the literature. First, did the roll-out of Food Stamps and WIC during the 1960s and 1970s affect the retail environment at the time? We expect to find that locations with earlier Food Stamp or WIC programs will have more food stores and more workers in those stores. Second, did the large increase, and subsequent decrease in the size of the SNAP program driven by the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act affect the retail food environment? Did increases and decreases have symmetric effects? We anticipate that the ARRA increase should have led to more sales, with the decline leading to some decreases.


Seungyeon Cho

The Effects of Disability, SNAP Participation and Changes in Benefits on Food Insecurity

PI: Seungyeon Cho, Texas A&M University, Texas AgriLife Research

Project description: This project will investigate the effects of household members’ disabilities, SNAP participation, and the 2013 SNAP benefit change on food insecurity using public and restricted access data from the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) 2011-2015. Mental and physical disabilities as well as their durations will be considered for household heads, spouses/partners, and children in the analyses. Self-selected SNAP participation will be controlled using the copula-based endogenous switching regression model, and state-level SNAP policy instruments will ensure identification of model parameters and program effects. We expect that household members’ types and duration of disabilities affect food insecurity differently. Through estimating the average treatment effect of SNAP on the SNAP participating households, we will evaluate the differences in the effects of SNAP participation and the change in benefit on food insecurity based on household members’ disability status.


Emmanuel Drabo

Does SNAP Encourage Claiming Disability Insurance Benefits?

PI: Emmanuel Drabo, Stanford University

Project description: The objective of this study is to understand the potential effects of participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and work requirements on applications for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits. We hypothesize that SNAP discourages SSDI applications among workers with disabilities through its work requirement rule for the able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs). However, SNAP may also encourage SSDI application because a significant number of people with disabilities are still considered ABAWD by USDA definitions, and may seek SSDI more actively given the SNAP work rule and the high risk of this population becoming temporarily unemployed. We will make use of the Census Bureau’s SIPP Synthetic Beta data and novel causal inference techniques (instrumental variables and causal forest modeling) to estimate the causal effects of SNAP participation and work requirements on SSDI applications. We anticipate that our findings will help identify the features of the SNAP program (if any) that discourages or encourages SSDI application, help identify SNAP participants who are likely to apply and participate early in SSDI, and help to objectively assess the potential effects of SNAP eligibility rules on households’ employment decisions, as well as their decisions to participate in other safety net programs.


Erica Kenney

Understanding the Impact of Changes to the Child and Adult Care Food Program on Food Expenditures, Food Quality, and Young Children’s Dietary Intake in Urban Family Child Care Homes

PI: Erica Kenney, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

Project description: The proposed study will evaluate how upcoming revisions to the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) meal pattern will impact the nutritional quality and cost of foods served to young children in family child care homes (FCCHs). Nearly half of all FCCHs in the U.S. participate in CACFP. It is unknown how the change in CACFP policy will impact FCCHs, who may be under-resourced. We will conduct a quasi-experimental study among a sample of 40 family child care providers in Boston serving a racially/ethnically and socioeconomically diverse population of 3-5 year-olds. Menus, digital photographs of meals, and food receipts will be collected over 4-week periods both before and after the meal pattern revisions go into effect in October 2017. FCCH providers will be surveyed regarding training and technical assistance experiences. We will estimate whether a) nutritional quality of meals served increases from before to after the policy change; b) food expenditures increased; and c) training predicts better adherence to the new policy. Results will help identify the real-world impact of the CACFP policy change on nutritional quality and food costs in this important care setting, and will help federal, state, and local agencies identify strategies for supporting implementation.


Grace Melo

Food Choices of SNAP/WIC Participants at Convenience Stores and Supermarkets

PI: Grace Melo, University of Georgia

Project description: There is a current need for research on the food choices of SNAP/WIC-participating households at smaller grocery, convenience, and gas-mart retailers. When households are seeking a few staple products, convenience stores may serve as places to satisfy those needs. This could be because of time pressures to purchase these few items or because of limited access to supermarkets. SNAP households are more likely to report purchases from convenience stores, gas stations, and pharmacies than low-income non-SNAP consumers. While previous work has evaluated SNAP/WIC participants’ store and food choices, little attention has been dedicated to identifying the determinants that impact actual market purchases of healthier and less healthy food items in convenience stores. As an attempt to fill this gap in the literature, we will evaluate the factors that affect the SNAP/WIC participants’ choice of four food-at-home (FAH) categories (healthier food at convenience stores, less healthy food at convenience stores, healthier food at supermarkets, and less healthy food at supermarkets) plus a numeraire by estimating a demand system. The empirical evidence of this study will present interesting information for policy making decisions that aim to influence household nutrition behavior when making shopping trips to convenience stores.


Marianne Page

Multi-generational Effects of Prenatal and Early Life Access to SNAP

PI: Marianne Page, University of California, Davis

Project description: There is substantial evidence that health and socioeconomic inequalities persist across generations. Poor children begin life with significant health disadvantages compared to non-poor children, and the gap widens as children age. Studies suggest that differences in early life environments may causally contribute to these disparities. At the same time, there is growing evidence that federal health and nutrition policies that improve the early childhood health environment positively affect individuals’ later well-being. In particular, studies find that childhood access to SNAP reduces health conditions associated with cardiovascular disease, and improves economic self-sufficiency. Literatures in economics and biology predict that the causal impacts of effective nutrition interventions should echo beyond the exposed generation, but little is known about either the extent of multi-generational linkages or the potential for public policy to alter them. This project will employ natural experiment methodologies to examine the effects of SNAP on later generations’ well-being. The analyses will provide the first evidence about whether and how nutrition policies affect health and economic outcomes across generations, along with important insights about how SNAP ameliorates the intergenerational consequences of inequality. They will also inform whether existing cost-benefit analyses underestimate the program’s true value.


Eric Rimm

The Impact of the Monthly SNAP Issuance Cycle on Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Purchasing and Implications for Policy Change

PI: Eric Rimm, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

Project description: The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) provides financial assistance for food purchases to 1 in 7 Americans. SNAP benefits are issued once monthly, which may negatively impact SNAP participants because most households spend the majority of benefits in the first 2 weeks after issuance and may not have sufficient money for groceries at the end of the month. Despite the well-established health consequences of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSB), in addition to anecdotal descriptions of stores utilizing knowledge of SNAP issuance to determine timing of promotions and/or sale pricing, no study has examined the influence of SNAP issuance on SSB purchases. This innovative policy-relevant research on the economic determinants of food choices will address three critical areas related to SNAP issuance and SSB purchasing: 1) Analysis of retail sales data to understand the impact of issuance on purchasing patterns, 2) Qualitative research to build an understanding of shopper perspectives on their food choices and possible changes to SNAP issuance, and 3) National polling to understand public opinion among U.S. adults, including SNAP participants, about these issues. A better sense of the public pulse on key policy alternatives for the program will be critical to inform future intervention studies and SNAP policy discussions.


Michah Rothbart

Does Universal Free School Meals Reduce Childhood Obesity?

PI: Michah Rothbart, Maxwell School, Syracuse University

Project description: This paper will investigate the effects of district-wide Universal Free Meals (UFM) policies, which provide school lunch for free to all students, regardless of income. Using a difference-in-difference design and longitudinal, student- and district-level data we will derive estimates of impacts on obesity and test scores. We will estimate mean impacts as well as separately by student sociodemographic subgroups (including poverty status, grade and race/ethnicity) and by school/district characteristics (including urbanicity, out-lunch policies and proximity to fast food). We will use two key samples: longitudinal student data in New York City public schools and district data in all of New York State. Using unique student-level transaction data, we will examine the impact of UFM on participation in school lunch and use UFM as an instrumental variable to shed light on the impact of school meals on obesity and test scores. Using new obesity rate data for all New York State school districts, we extend the analysis to the whole state, again exploring impacts on childhood obesity. The results from this study will help policymakers target expansions of UFM, and/or contract existing UFM coverage, by presenting credibly causal estimates of the consequences of UFM.


Naisi Zhao

Organizational Readiness for Knowledge Translation and WIC Participation

PI: Naisi Zhao, Tufts University School of Medicine

Project description: To update the WIC food packages, USDA FNS and WIC agencies throughout the country successfully translated nutrition evidence into WIC program policies in 2009. This proposed study analyzes the 2009 WIC policy change process through the lens of knowledge translation. Knowledge translation is the process of synthesizing and applying knowledge in policy decision-making. This study aims to conduct semi-structured interviews to unpack the role WIC agencies played in the 2009 policy change knowledge translation experience. It hypothesizes that WIC agencies' degree of organizational readiness for knowledge translation could be associated with their ability to implement evidence-based changes, and that WIC agencies who had a better experience implementing evidence-based changes could have improved WIC participation outcomes.