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New Duke-UNC Research Center to Explore Ways to Encourage Healthy Food Choices

Focus is on 50 million Americans receiving federal food benefits

A new research center at Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill will develop strategies to promote healthy food choices, particularly among the 50 million Americans receiving federal food benefits. The Duke-UNC USDA Center for Behavioral Economics and Healthy Food Choice Research (BECR Center) was established with a three-year, $1.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Matthew Harding, an assistant professor at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy, will direct the research program.“We’ll employ an innovative approach combining big data analysis with large-scale field experiments to pursue triple-win strategies -- policies that benefit consumers, are not hurting the bottom line for companies and have broad impact on the public good,” Harding said. Since 2007, the number of Americans using USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), popularly known as food stamps, has nearly doubled, reaching almost one-sixth of the U.S. population at an annual cost of $79 billion. In addition, averages of 8.7 million Americans participate each month in the Women, Infants, and Children Nutrition Program (WIC), and more than half of them are children.Behavioral economics draws on research from the fields of economics and cognitive psychology to better understand consumer behavior and decision-making. The BECR Center will harness the power of huge datasets on consumer food choice behavior. Several large retailers supported the grant application, including Walmart and the California-based Fresh & Easy supermarket chain.An existing USDA-funded research center at Cornell University has tested “behavioral nudges” in school cafeterias. “A lot of those things are good ideas, they work,” Harding said, “so now we’re going to take them into a broader setting and try to change people’s behavior in stores, farmers’ markets and other places where people make food choices.”The UNC-Chapel Hill team is headed by Alice Ammerman, a professor of nutrition in the Gillings School of Global Public Health, and director of the UNC Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention. “Our research will begin with ‘listening sessions’ with WIC and SNAP customers, retailers and program administrators to understand what needs and barriers they are facing,” Ammerman said. “This is important research that has the potential to improve the health of millions of Americans,” said Kelly Brownell, dean of Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy and a food policy expert. “Matt Harding has assembled an impressive team of people to work on very important issues.”Barbara Rimer, dean of the Gillings School, said food insecurity continues to present huge challenges. "We are delighted that this collaboration between UNC and Duke will bring together faculty with years of applied research experience with participants receiving benefits from federal nutrition programs,” Rimer said.In addition to Harding and Brownell, other Duke collaborators are Dan Ariely, Gavan Fitzsimmons and Peter Ubel of the Fuqua School of Business and Mary Story of the Global Health Institute. UNC partners, in addition to Ammerman, are Shu Wen Ng and Molly DeMarco, also of the nutrition department in UNC’s Gillings School.