Community Food Environment Mapping
In order to intervene affectively, it is essential to understand the characteristics of the current food environment and food system. The HEALTHE lab has created interactive maps of the food environment in East Tennessee by measuring the number and types of different food outlets (such as superstores, grocery stores, convenience stores, restaurants, and fast food) along with measures of the availability and price of foods and beverages within those food outlets. This information is geocoded and combined with other neighborhood-level factors such as socioeconomic status, nutrition-related disease burden, and food insecurity status to identify vulnerable areas and appropriate obesity prevention intervention strategies.
Behavioral Economics and Food Choice Research in Stores
The food environment has been linked to obesity and diet quality. Interventions to address the food environment in small retail food settings (corner stores, convenience stores) have shown some success in increasing the availability of healthy foods, but additional research is needed to generate evidence-based strategies to increase purchasing and consumption of the healthier options.
The HEALTHE lab is building a lab-based convenience store that will allow researchers to test and assess manipulations to the retail food environment (i.e., modifications in price, product mix, marketing). The results of the lab-based experiments will be used to build evidence for additional food environment intervention work or potential changes to policies and regulations to promote health at the population level.
Community-based Food Policy and Environment Interventions
In partnership with the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture, the HEALTHE lab is developing, implementing and evaluating a multi-level community based intervention to increase access to healthier foods in small, rural food stores and to increase purchasing and consumption of those healthier items among low-income families with young children (ages 2-5) who participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). This intervention will include providing storeowners with training, equipment (like small refrigerators and produce displays), and support to stock healthier products in their stores. It will also include in-store promotion, taste tests, and a text messaging program for families to help them be able to identify and select healthier choices.
Food Insecurity Among College Students
Food insecurity is defined as a lack of reliable access to safe, nutritionally adequate foods. College students, especially lower-income and first-generation students, may be particularly vulnerable to food insecurity due to rising tuition costs and initiatives to increase access to a college education for all. A small number of studies have started to formally assess this issue and found that college students exhibited significantly higher levels of food insecurity in comparison to state levels of food insecurity in the general public. Current literature has also identified relationships between food insecurity and problematic health and academic outcomes. One study found that food insecure students were more likely to experience mental health issues, unhealthy eating behaviors, and use alcohol. Other studies have found an inverse relationship between GPA and food security, with food insecure students more likely to have lower GPAs. The HEALTHE lab is partnering with the ICAN-GROW lab at UT and the Southeast University Consortium on Hunger, Poverty, and Nutrition to systematically assess and start to address food insecurity among college students in the Southeast.