Last year, roughly one in 10 American households was food insecure. This widespread issue, affecting more than 38 million people, is more than just about food. It’s a byproduct of deep societal inequalities.
“Access to enough affordable healthy food is at the core of multiple forms of inequality, for example, race, gender, environmental,” said Visiting Assistant Professor of Economics Ben Scharadin, a public policy economist who focuses on food insecurity issues. “It impacts health, education, and labor-market participation.”
But Scharadin has found that economics research investigating food access tends to consider the “average” or “representative” household. In contrast, his work aims to understand on-the-ground realities for food-insecure households, especially for those most vulnerable, and employ that knowledge to inform policies that enhance food assistance programs.
Locally, Scharadin contributes to the Maine Ending Hunger by 2030 Initiative, a bill passed to eliminate food insecurity, by exploring the viability of turning the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program into a universal basic income program for greater food access. Additionally, he is co-designing a civic engagement project to create with students Maine’s first food-waste atlas, mapping where excess currently goes and its other possible uses.
“Both of those [projects] have the potential to inform Maine state-level public policy,” he said.
Besides these, his latest paper looked at a crucial concept for combating food insecurity and developing healthier food policies: food retail environments, which are food stores and restaurants available to someone on a regular day. Food environments are considered a key theoretical determinant in people’s food choices and diet-related health problems, such as obesity or diabetes, he explained.
However, the applied literature disagrees on the interplay between food environments and health issues. Some research finds unhealthy environments lead to unhealthy diets, which triggered preventative policies like subsidizing new grocery stores or banning sales of unhealthy foods near schools. But others arrive at different conclusions. This inconsistency, Scharadin suspected, emerged from not having a standard way of measuring food environments.
“If you read 20 different papers, there might be 20 different definitions of what the food retail environment means,” he said. “I wasn’t convinced that any of those were how people actually thought about purchasing food.”
For a more convincing definition that could yield effective policies, he sought to understand the unexplored relationship between food environments and geographic boundaries, which encircle each environment to limit its scope.
His efforts led to the paper “Geographic Boundary Definitions and the Robustness of Common Food Retail Environment Measures,” accepted for publication in Annals of the American Association of Geographers. In it, Scharadin and his colleagues examined five different ways of drawing food environment boundaries. They investigated how each boundary affected food environment measures like access, availability, and affordability that help researchers assess an environment’s food security and healthfulness levels.
They found that for the same households, different perimeters produced varying levels of food access and health outcomes, for example, diet quality and obesity. Like gerrymandering in politics, he noted, where spatial definitions shift election results. In this case, it changed the predicted impact of food security.
“That’s a problem,” he said. “In any research, you don’t want the decisions you made for the variable you used to change your outcome.”
For the first time, they also analyzed people’s real food-purchasing habits in relation to their food environments; they uncovered that the widely used U.S. census tract didn’t correctly capture people’s routines. For instance, in Waterville, it excluded Hannaford, Shaw’s, and Walmart, where most residents shop.
Moreover, they discovered that urban and rural food environments needed different boundary definitions because of their distinctive challenges, such as traffic and time constraints in the city and infrastructure barriers in small towns. But households even within the same food environment showed dissimilar food purchasing habits.
All of these disparities Scharadin identified highlighted issues caused by drawing food environments boundaries differently—an irregularity with potential negative consequences for policymaking, ranging from insufficient food aid programs to inaccurate zoning requirements for restaurants and stores.
Scharadin’s next project, a USDA Economics Research Service-funded joint study, will construct a household-level food retail environment measure to evaluate variations among neighbors in the same food retail environment. “The goal is to create a measure that more accurately captures how households interact with their food retail environment,” he said, “which can be used to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of food-assistance policies.”
Unlike prior research examining the “average representative” household, this work will focus on people most susceptible to food insecurity and the constraints they face, such as transportation challenges or the potential for racial bias, which, earlier studies found, increases when traveling away from home. Scharadin wants to see if access to healthy food is a demand issue like others suggested or more of a supply problem in which people might be turning to unhealthy options because of impediments rather than by choice.
“Economics, to me, and I think to many, is the study of humans making choices,” said Scharadin. “They’ll make choices for any number of reasons, and if we decide to leave out a whole bunch of reasons because they’re not prices or quantities, we’re probably missing half of the problem.”
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