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Image: Food Choices & Health

Behavioral Economics



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ERS plays a leading role in applying behavioral economic theories and concepts to improving food choices. In collaboration with USDA's Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), ERS has invested in developing a major behavioral economics/healthy food-choice research program; this includes the establishment of two university-based research centers dedicated to generating knowledge and developing research capacity in this important research area:

New Duke-UNC-USDA Center for Behavioral Economics and Healthy Food Choice Research

The Duke-UNC-USDA Center for Behavioral Economics and Healthy Food Choice Research is a partnership between Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill established by ERS in September 2014. The new USDA Center, jointly funded by ERS and FNS, will facilitate innovative research on the application of behavioral economic theory to healthy food-choice behaviors that would enhance the nutrition, food security, and health of American consumers. All consumer, food industry, and retailer behaviors relevant to USDA's food and nutrition policies will be within the scope of the Center, except for research activities that would overlap with those funded under the USDA Behavioral Economics/Child Nutrition Research Initiative.

The Center will devote a substantial portion of its efforts to factors related to the effectiveness and efficiency of two major USDA food assistance programs—the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC Program). The Center will lead research in this area by conducting its own program of innovative research and broadening the network of social scientists who participate in behavioral economics/healthy food-choice research. To broaden the research network, the Center will administer a program of research subawards and conduct other activities that provide leadership and communication within this emerging research community.  Finally, the Center will actively disseminate information obtained via its research program to a diverse stakeholder audience, including other researchers, policy officials, food assistance program managers and staff, food industry members, and the general public. The Center is funded for a 3-year period, at a total funding level of $1.9 million.

USDA Behavioral Economics/Child Nutrition Research Initiative

Since fiscal year 2010, ERS, in partnership with FNS, has led a research initiative that focuses on identifying behavioral economic-based strategies to encourage children to select and consume the healthy foods available to them through USDA's National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and its other child nutrition programs.

The objectives of USDA's Behavioral Economics/Child Nutrition Research Initiative are to:

  • Provide innovative research on behavioral economics and healthy food choices that addresses questions of public policy interest and importance.
  • Broaden the network of social scientists who participate in research that applies principles and theories of behavioral economics to the study of healthy food-choice behaviors that will lead to improving nutrition, food security, and health outcomes.
  • Disseminate information obtained via its research program to a diverse stakeholder audience, including other researchers, policy and program officials, and the general public.

Through this initiative, ERS and FNS have funded the establishment of the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs, commonly referred to as the BEN Center. The BEN Center plays a leading role in conducting behavioral economics/child food-choice research and in administering research subawards to broaden researcher participation in the behavioral economics/child nutrition research initiative. The BEN Center vigorously disseminates research findings through peer-reviewed publications and practitioner-oriented communications, including its Smarter Lunchrooms Movement that is designed to assist school foodservices to implement research-tested strategies.

For more information about behavioral economic research conducted by ERS or funded through ERS, see the Food and Nutrition Assistance Research Database and the topic Diet Quality & Nutrition: Background.

Last updated: Friday, October 31, 2014

For more information contact: Joanne Guthrie, Alex Majchrowicz, and Lisa Mancino