Call for Proposals: NBER Project on the Economics of Food Security,
Nutrition, and Health: Insights from FoodAPS

January 15, 2016

With the generous support of the Economic Research Service, the Food and Nutrition Service, and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) is organizing a new two-year research initiative under the leadership of Janet Currie of Princeton University and NBER and Marianne Bitler of the University of California at Davis and NBER. This initiative will consist of ten distinct projects that will leverage the USDA’s new FoodAPS dataset to address issues related to food security, nutrition, and health in the United States

One of the central objectives of a range of U.S. food assistance programs is support for a healthy, well-nourished population. The efficacy of these programs in achieving their intended goals is nevertheless a topic of ongoing research and debate. The list of current programs that address food needs includes the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP); the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC); and the Child Nutrition Programs (School Breakfast Program (SBP), National School Lunch Program (NLSP), the Child and Adult Care Food Program, and Summer Meals Program)). Despite the existence of these programs, a non-trivial share of the U.S. population appears to have low or very low levels of food security, and diet-related illness account for a large share of health expenditures in the United States.

The NBER initiative will investigate why and how nutrition assistance programs, the food environment, and other aspects of the built environment affect diet, nutritional outcomes, and food security. It will focus on lessons that can be learned from the newly-released National Household Food Acquisition and Purchase Survey (FoodAPS). This is a nationally representative survey which collected data on food acquisitions, including both food- at-home and away-from-home, over a 7-day period for SNAP program participants, income eligible non-participant households, and higher income SNAP ineligible households. The survey also contains information on participation in other nutrition assistance programs, the location and store type where food was purchased, prices and nutrition information on purchased items, administrative reports of SNAP participation and SNAP benefit amount, time since last disbursement of SNAP benefits, and self-reports of participation in SNAP, school nutrition programs, and WIC. These data have been linked with geographically aligned counts of various types of stores and food establishments and include a measure of household food security. These data make it possible to study differences in food purchases associated with program participation, the locations of store types and store pricing, and other related decisions.

For this initiative, priority will be given to proposals that explore questions related to SNAP, child nutrition (including child nutrition programs), and WIC. Potential research topics for this initiative include, but are not limited to, the following:

--  The Role of Food Access in Child Nutrition. There is a persistent belief that many poor families with children lack access to local sources of healthy food. There is little evidence, however, that lack of access is the dominant factor affecting the healthfulness of children's diets. FoodAPS can be used to address the relationship between food expenditures, store type, and the availability of healthful food in a geographic cross section, and to study how this relationship varies for users of food assistance programs and for others.

--  WIC and the Local Food Environment. Unlike SNAP, WIC provides a quantity voucher and thus participants have no incentive to shop for the best deal on a given product. Local retailers can decide whether or not to participate in WIC, and not all of them do. Research could explore the relationship between the number of retailers in a local area that participate in WIC, household store choice and shopping behavior for WIC participant families.

--  Understanding Food Insecurity. The survey contains a 10-item 30-day household food security module, which can be linked to data on the food and the built environment, as well as purchase behaviors, SNAP participation, and the SNAP cycle.

--  Private Food Charities, Economic Conditions, and Food Choice. How does the private food assistance network complement or substitute for the public safety net? FoodAPS can be used to study this question and to see whether food offerings from the private safety net differ in healthfulness from offerings in the public food assistance safety net.

--  SNAP, Food Choice, and Purchase Quality for Households with Children. The SNAP program allows recipients to purchase any foods that are not already prepared from participating vendors. There is a persistent concern that SNAP recipients are buying unhealthful foods such as soda and chips, for example. The FoodAPS data can be used to study this question.

--  Provider Responses to Federal Food Programs. Do vendors capture some of the benefit of federal food programs by raising their prices around the time that benefits are issued? FoodAPS could be used to examine how the timing of purchases varies with time since benefit disbursal and whether it differs systematically between program participants and others.

--  Reporting of Program Benefits and Participation. Administrative records often indicate that many more households participate in SNAP than what is reported in household surveys. FoodAPS provides nationally representative data on self-reports and administrative reports of SNAP receipt that could be used to study what leads to under and over-reporting in SNAP and other nutrition programs.

A complete list of variables available to users in this initiative and a user guide is available at:

This list of researcher questions is intended to be illustrative rather than exhaustive. Researchers interested in studying these or related questions should upload proposals of no more than five pages, single spaced and including references, tables, and other supplementary material by January 15, 2016 to

Proposals should describe the research question to be studied and indicate how FoodAPS data will be used to study this question. Projects that do not propose to utilize the FoodAPS data will not be funded. Proposals should also discuss other data, if applicable, that will be used to supplement FoodAPS data, explain methods to be used, and present preliminary or related findings where possible. They should also provide a complete list of the investigators who will be involved in carrying out the project and indicate any potential conflicts of interest that might arise from financial or other interests of the researchers.

The initiative leaders will review the proposals and select projects for support, subject to the approval of the Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service. Researchers who submit proposals that are selected for inclusion in the project will be notified by February 28, 2016.

The research team for each project will receive $25,000 of salary support for the principal investigator(s) and $15,000 in research assistant support. The costs for access to the FoodAPS data at the NORC data enclave will be covered for the duration of the grant. Investigators and research assistants will be paid as NBER employees. At least one of the principal investigators on each project must be a faculty member at a U.S. college or university. Proposals from researchers with and without NBER affiliations are welcome.

Successful research teams will be expected to:

1) Participate in a conference call in during in May 2016 to share ideas across projects and to solicit feedback from other researchers.

2) Present initial results of research at a pre-conference to be held in early 2017.

3) Provide a completed manuscript describing project results and a short executive summary with highlighted findings, and present the findings at a final research conference in late 2017.

A refereed journal may be invited to consider some or all of the research papers in this project for a potential special issue.

Questions about this research initiative may be directed to Elisa Pepe (

Please feel free to forward this message to other researchers who might be interested in this project. Thank you.

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