2015 Research Grants

The BECR Center called for proposals that draw on behavioral economics theory to develop and test strategies for improving food choice behavior using field experiments. After careful consideration of the many excellent proposals we received, BECR is pleased to announce the selections for our 2015 Healthy Food Behavior Research Grants.


A Pilot Program to Increase Selection of Frequently Consumed Healthier SNAP-Eligible Ready to Heat Foods

PI: Eric Rimm, PhD, Harvard University

The proposed research is a prospective observational trial with fixed exposure designed to leverage existing project infrastructure, resources, and partnerships. We are working with a large Northeastern supermarket chain on strategies to improve food choices among low-income shoppers, and will pilot a fruit and vegetable incentive program in one of their stores in Maine, beginning in October 2015. We will invite all participants in the fruit and vegetable pilot (n=400) to participate in this follow-up study following the end of the pilot program (May 2016). During this pilot, we will use store loyalty cards to track purchases of participants and will use this data to identify the most frequently purchased ready-to-heat meals within our study sample. We will use our retail partner’s nutrition rating system to identify more nutritious alternatives to these processed meals, and will use a combination of in-store and direct marketing strategies to nudge consumers towards these healthier, SNAP-eligible, ready-to- heat options. In-store strategies will include choice architecture, in which healthier meals will be placed prominently in high-traffic locations, and framing techniques, in which the lower price of target meals will be compared to popular alternatives. We will use repeated measures ANOVA to compare purchases per shopping month within individuals (pre-to post-intervention). Long- term, we aim to translate these results to other retail settings; many large supermarkets are reformulating store-brand processed foods, and this study will help to identify effective strategies to nudge consumers towards increasing selection of these healthier ready-to-heat options.


Calorie Mandates and Dietary Habits: Understanding How Information Impacts What and Where People Eat

PI: Michael Price, PhD, Georgia State University

Our proposed research methodology includes (i) the development of a theory rooted in behavioral economics that highlights the potential channels through which the calorie mandate impacts food choice and (ii) an empirical strategy to identify these channels and how the calorie mandate impacts what and where people eat. To achieve our empirical aims, we will compare the changes in our outcomes of interest over time in regions affected by the ACA’s calorie-posting requirement to changes in regions not affected by the mandate because of pre-existing calorie mandates. We will also examine the heterogeneous effects of the mandate by demographic characteristics and SNAP/WIC status. We will purchase receipt data of all household purchases – including those at restaurants, grocery stores, and other retail outlets – from InfoScout. Our budget will allow us to track 1,100 panelists living in our treatment and control areas for 12 months surrounding the implementation of the calorie-posting mandate.


Just-in-Time Incentives (JITI) to Promote Fruit and Vegetable Redemption among WIC Participants

PI: Qi (Harry) Zhang, PhD, Old Dominion University

We will adopt a mixed methods approach that integrates big data analysis, a behavioral economics experiment, and mobile messaging technology. The JITI program is designed to send timely text messages to under- redeeming WIC households to provide them with their FV redemption information and thereby to prompt them to redeem the full allowable FV benefits. To identify under-redemption WIC participants, we will analyze millions of redemption records in the Virginia WIC database. This big data analysis approach also helps us understand WIC participants’ redemption patterns and explore their redemption barriers.
Based on the analytic results, we will recruit under-redemption WIC participants for focus group interviews. We will combine the results from the focus group and a comprehensive literature review to design the appropriate JITI strategies (e.g., text messages and delivery timing). We will implement a mixed factorial experimental design with a sample of 340 under-redemption WIC participants to test the effectiveness of four intervention strategies, including FV benefit balance information (yes/no), message framing (positive/negative), peer effect (yes/no), and the timing of the delivery (typical shopping day/random day). We will conduct quantitative and qualitative evaluation afterwards to assess the effectiveness of alternative JITI incentives.


Increasing Healthy Eating Through Pre-Commitment in Grocery Stores

PI: Anya Samek, PhD, University of Southern California

We propose to conduct field experiments using behavioral economics methods. We will partner with our long-term collaborator, Louis’ Groceries, who is launching a
grocery store in the predominately low-income and high minority community of North Lawndale in Chicago, IL. In Phase I, we will enroll SNAP individuals, who make food selections from a pre-selected set of free ‘healthy’ (fresh, canned and frozen produce) and ‘unhealthy’ (pre-packaged sugary/high fat snacks). We will allow participants to make food selections for immediate purchase versus in advance, and evaluate selections. Then, participants will either 1) receive information about their food behaviors – were they inconsistent or not? 2) receive a stream of advance bundles to give familiarity with commitment or 3) a control group. We will ask participants whether they would like to pre-commit to options of only ‘healthy’ foods or only advance choices. Finally, we will survey participants about their preferences. In Phase II we will evaluate scalability by enrolling actual customers, and allow a random sub-set of them to participate in pre- commitment for up to 6 months.


Do you see what “eye” see? Exploring visual attention and rational choice on food purchasing decisions among SNAP participants

PI: Diana Grigsby-Toussaint, PhD, University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign

Few studies have examined objective food purchase decision-making by low-income individuals in the US. This lack of research limits the potential for effective interventions in one of the most important places that shape family purchasing and dietary behaviors—the grocery store. We contribute to this literature by conducting a field experiment to examine objective packaging considerations when making food purchase decisions among SNAP participants in central Illinois. Our specific aims are to: (a) examine whether mothers participating in the SNAP program take into consideration nutritional information when making their decisions; and (b) evaluate whether changes in labeling and signage can lead mothers participating in the SNAP program to make healthier food choices. SNAP participants in Champaign County, Illinois (N=100) will be recruited to participate in choice experiments using an eye-tracking device at the local public health department. The stimuli for the study will involve a choice-based conjoint of labels and signage using four variables, specifically, (1) Nutritional information (e.g., calorie count, fat, sugar), (2) Central image (e.g., spokes-characters), (3) Health information (e.g., “good for your bones”), (4) Price. Random utility models will be used to determine which attributes of product information participants attend to, while accounting for attribute non-attendance.