USDA Creating $1.9 Million Research Center Devoted to Changing American’s Food Choices

Research to examine dismantling fast food combos

First lady Michelle Obama / AP
June 2, 2014

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is creating a $2 million research center to study how the government can "nudge" Americans toward making healthier eating habits.

The agency is currently accepting grant applications to establish a "Center for Behavioral Economics and Healthy Food Choice Research," which will facilitate studies such as how breaking up combo meals at fast food restaurants would influence customers.

"The USDA Center will facilitate new and innovative research on the application of behavioral economics theory to healthy food choice behaviors that would contribute to enhancing the nutrition, food security, and health of American consumers," the USDA’s grant announcement said.

The center will be given at least $1.9 million over three years, with the possibility of future funding. Its research will focus on "facilitating food choice behaviors" and improving the diets of Americans enrolled on food stamps and the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program.

The USDA said it is their responsibility to attempt to alter the food choices of Americans since 25 percent receive food aid from government programs.

"With a total outlay of $108.9 billion in FY 2013, food and nutrition assistance accounted for 72 percent of USDA’s budget," the announcement said. "Approximately 1 in 4 Americans participated in at least 1 of the 15 food and nutrition assistance programs at some point during FY 2013, making these programs fundamental to the nutritional well-being of millions of Americans."

"These diverse activities share the common goal of improving the nutrition, food security, and health of American consumers," it said.

The USDA claims that food choices are not made in a "purely rational manner," but are influenced by food manufacturers and retailers.

"The idea of complete rationality is challenged by repeated observance of cognitive biases such as hyperbolic discounting that can lead to decisions that seem to over-value short-term benefits such as the taste or convenience of foods versus long-run benefits such as health," the grant announcement said.

A list of "Topics of interest" provided by the USDA sheds light on the type of research the new center will conduct.

"How are firms’ product development, pricing, marketing, and promotion strategies affected when consumers have systematic biases in decisionmaking?" the agency asked. "Can package or portion sizes be presented or promoted in a manner that encourages healthful consumption?"

The USDA also wants to know how changes to fast food combo meals can force Americans to eat healthier.

"What would be the impact of changing the presentation order in which food is displayed on fast food menu boards or the manner in which foods are bundled for fast-food or restaurant meals?" they asked.

The USDA also proposed a study on changing how food is described on menus, labeling low-sodium and low-fat versions as "regular," and "framing regular versions of certain snack products as high-fat or high-sodium."

In addition, the agency is interested in research that could encourage Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) participants to plan meals in advance, make shopping lists, and avoid shopping when hungry, the USDA said.

Much of the research will involve SNAP, since the average 47.6 million people who received food stamp benefits each month in 2013 had "diets in need of improvement," the USDA said.

"Studies could also explore retailer-participant interactions—for example, could retailers design store formats that assist SNAP participants, perhaps by using store-based symbols or logos that highlight foods that are both healthful and economical, in a manner that simplifies and speeds choice for SNAP shoppers?" the grant announcement said.

"Finally, studies could examine behavioral factors related to SNAP program operations, such as behavioral messaging and cues (‘nudges’) that prompt healthful food choices," it said.

The research will ultimately impact policy. The USDA is seeking to use the studies as a basis for new regulations, after findings are shared with policymakers, program officials, and the general public.

"Studies are expected to focus on ideas that can be implemented within existing legislation and regulations rather than options that change them," the announcement said.