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Do low prices for soft drinks and cookies versus higher prices for healthier foods such as fresh tomatoes and avocados contribute to obesity among America's poor? Is there a correlation between food prices, obesity and national food assistance programs? These and other related questions will be the focus of a new research project headquartered at Old Dominion University and funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Qi Zhang, assistant professor of community and environmental health in ODU's College of Health Sciences, leads the research team. Other members are from Johns Hopkins University and the University of Chicago.

The two-year, $135,555 grant, titled "Price Effect on Diet and Obesity Risk of Food Assistance Program Recipients," will link data from three national surveys to study the effects of local food prices on food assistance program (FAP) participation, on FAP participants' dietary intakes and on FAP participants' body mass index.

In hypotheses advanced by their grant proposal, the researchers suggest that
participation in the federal food stamp program and other food assistance programs will be found to be higher in regions where the cost of living is higher. They also believe their research will show that these FAP participants face an increased risk of obesity because the healthiest foods cost more than unhealthy foods.

"The proposed research is significant because identification of price effect on FAP participants' diet and health outcomes will have important policy implications," said Zhang, a health economist who joined the ODU faculty in 2005. "If, for example, FAP participants consume more unhealthy foods because of their lower price relative to healthy foods, the government should promote health education for FAP participants and provide subsidies to healthy foods to increase their consumption of healthy foods."

As a long-term goal of the project, the researchers hope to identify the economic mechanisms that promote weight gains among low-income Americans.

Collaborators on the project are Dr. Youfa Wang, a physician and assistant professor of human nutrition at Johns Hopkins' Bloomberg School of Public Health whose research focus is childhood eating behaviors and obesity, and Harold Pollack, associate professor and faculty chair of the Center for Health Administration Studies at the University of Chicago whose research focus is poverty and public health policy.

Zhang, who has researched socioeconomic disparities and prevalence of obesity in the United States, has collaborated on other projects with Dr. Wang.

The study will use existing data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, the American Chamber of Commerce Researchers' Association price data set and the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

Expert critiques of the proposal note that the association of obesity and socioeconomic status, including ties between obesity and food assistance programs, has been the focus of many researchers. But Zhang and his team are given credit for innovative thinking that will allow them to exploit existing data sets. "The implications of their findings may change the way food assistance programs are structured and identify other preventive measures to address the obesity epidemic," wrote one reviewer of the proposal.

Zhang conducted a related pilot study with research support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service and Southern Rural Development Center at Mississippi State University. The pilot study found that the cost of food-including many popular unhealthy foods-is generally less in the South. Coca-Cola, according to the research, costs 7 percent less by average in the South than in the country as a whole.

The preliminary work in the South indicates that lower costs of living do promote unhealthy weight gain. "This suggests that the cost of living could be an important factor that affects low-income populations' food choices and other health behaviors that affect body weight," the proposal to NIH asserts.

This article was posted on: August 20, 2007

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