The Importance of a Multi-Dimensional Approach for Studying the Links between Food Access and Consumption
Research on neighborhood food access has focused on documenting disparities in the food environment and on assessing the links between the environment and consumption. Relatively few studies have combined in-store food availability measures with geographic mapping of stores. We review research that has used these multi-dimensional measures of access to explore the links between the neighborhood food environment and consumption or weight status. Early research in California found correlations between red meat, reduced-fat milk, and whole-grain bread consumption and shelf space availability of these products in area stores. Subsequent research in New York confirmed the low-fat milk findings. Recent research in Baltimore has used more sophisticated diet assessment tools and store-based instruments, along with controls for individual characteristics, to show that low availability of healthy food in area stores is associated with low-quality diets of area residents. Our research in southeastern Louisiana has shown that shelf space availability of energy-dense snack foods is positively associated with BMI after controlling for individual socioeconomic characteristics. Most of this research is based on cross-sectional studies. To assess the direction of causality, future research testing the effects of interventions is needed. We suggest that multi-dimensional measures of the neighborhood food environment are important to understanding these links between access and consumption. They provide a more nuanced assessment of the food environment. Moreover, given the typical duration of research project cycles, changes to in-store environments may be more feasible than changes to the overall mix of retail outlets in communities.