September 2004, Issue 3

Using Economics to Answer Questions on US Food Policies

Parke E. Wilde, PhD, joined the Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy as an assistant professor in the Food Policy and Applied Nutrition Program in September 2004. Wilde is an economist interested in US food security, food assistance, nutrition, and obesity. People often have strong opinions on these issues, frequently based on anecdotal evidence. Wilde seeks to inform policy makers of the data so they can move beyond opinions to evidence-based decisions. His particular expertise is using the information contained in existing federal databases in novel ways to answer important questions about US food policy.

Wilde received his doctorate in agricultural economics from Cornell University in 1998. "Food policy has been my interest since my undergraduate years," Wilde says. "When I decided to go to graduate school, I mainly chose economics because of the concrete tools that economics offers." After Cornell and before coming to Tufts, Wilde worked with the Economic Research Service of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), where he applied economic and econometric tools to questions on US food policies, mainly food stamps. Econometrics are economic statistics used for looking at real-world, rather than experimental, data. Wilde uses these tools to answer questions such as what caused the decline in food stamp participation during the 1990s. Was it due to the Welfare Reform Act, to the strong economy, or to some combination of factors? Wilde contends that policymakers need this information if they are to make informed decisions about current and future food policies.

To answer questions about the complex effects of any national policy, enormous amounts of data must be analyzed. Luckily, the government tends to collect mountains of data, but it takes a person like Wilde to mine the jewels of information hidden within. Sometimes Wilde starts with a question and tries to find the data necessary to answer it. Other times he delves into existing federal data sources and then thinks about how the information contained in those records can be used for research on nutrition or food security. He spends time reading the fine print on survey instruments and government records to find data sources that haven't been exploited to their full advantage. Occasionally he realizes that combining two or more data sources, often in statistically unique ways, will give him the information he seeks.

For example, major federal surveys ask people a battery of questions about whether they experienced food-related hardship, such as skipping meals, going hungry, or going a whole day without food. At the same time, the advent of the electronic benefit transfer (EBT) card — the debit card that has replaced food stamps — has opened up a new source of detailed data on participants' food spending, including the timing and amount of their food stamp benefits and grocery purchases. In future work, Wilde would like to combine these information sources to better understand the hardship that people experience at the end of the food stamp month. This information could improve future policies or lower late-month hunger among food stamp participants.

Such work would follow up on a line of research Wilde began in his dissertation at Cornell, which earned an award from the American Council on Consumer Interests in 1999. In a journal article based on that dissertation, Wilde and his major professor reported in 2000: "Mean food spending by food stamp households in the USA peaks sharply in the first three days after benefits are received. For those who conduct major grocery shopping trips only once per month (42% of all food stamp households), mean food energy intake drops significantly by the fourth week of the month." Wilde believes this line of research can be further strengthened using the newly available data sources from EBT cards to understand food security conditions in households and food retail conditions in their communities.

In another data analysis, Wilde reported: "Participation in the Food Stamp Program is associated with higher intake of meats, added sugars, and total fats. Participation in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) is associated with lower intake of added sugars." The data can suggest why one policy is better than another at increasing participants' intake of quality foods. Policymakers may be able to improve the quality of food bought by program participants by changing either the way benefits are distributed or some other policy attribute.

Wilde's current research includes a project funded by the National Poverty Center to investigate how food stamps affect food security and a recently commissioned paper for a panel of the Committee on National Statistics about how advocacy groups and the media use the federal government's food security measure. He also plans to become involved in research on obesity, possibly working with Aviva Must, Miriam Nelson, Christina Economos, Jeanne Goldberg, and Susan Roberts. Wilde teaches courses in US food policy and econometrics, and his expertise in these areas complements existing strengths at the Friedman School of Nutrition in such areas as international nutrition interventions and nutrition science research.

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