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How Many Stores Does it Take to Make Healthy Purchases Easier?

AAEA members publish new research in AEPP

In recent years, food sales at dollar stores and online grocery retailing had been expanding. In the midst of the current pandemic, these forms of food retailing have emerged as some of the winners of this almost Darwinian example of adaptation. At the same time, existing hardships perceived by individuals who have experienced job losses, personal tragedies, and overall disruption due to the virus itself, and to the policies meant to blockade expansion of non-traditional retailers, may in fact worsen. There will be urgent policy needs to assess the incidence of barriers to acquire healthy foods among disadvantaged populations and to design policies on how to mitigate them. It is possible that the same policy tools considered in the past may not be effective to mitigate hardships. Once the U.S. recovers from the current downturn due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the food retail environment may look very different than a year ago.

In the new article “If You Build Them… Will it Matter? Food Stores' Presence and Perceived Barriers to Purchasing Healthy Foods in the Northeastern U.S.” published in the Applied Economics Perspectives & Policy, Lauren Chenarides from Arizona State University, Alessandro Bonanno from Colorado State University and Anne Palmer from Johns Hopkins examine how objective measures of food access (number of stores) affect consumers’ perceived constraints in acquiring healthy foods.

Chenarides says, “Careful attention should be given to how results are obtained and how the problem is framed before making definitive statements about the relationship between stated hardships to purchase healthy foods and store presence. We find that different measures of perceived hardships may be more or less prevalent in the presence of different types of stores. Also, our study (which shows a variety of relationships, from strong and significant to null) serves as a cautionary tale. Because the strong public support for store intervention policies is faced by mixed evidence regarding some aspects of their effectiveness per existing studies, researchers should be open to the possibility that such a study may generate a false-positive result (i.e., a result supporting a policy which may have no effect) or a false negative one (i.e., a null result for a policy which may instead be effective). Research in this area should examine whether, and under what circumstances, modifications to the food environment would serve to benefit residents.”

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ABOUT AAEA: Established in 1910, the Agricultural & Applied Economics Association (AAEA) is the leading professional association for agricultural and applied economists, with 2,500 members in more than 60 countries. Members of the AAEA work in academic or government institutions as well as in industry and not-for-profit organizations, and engage in a variety of research, teaching, and outreach activities in the areas of agriculture, the environment, food, health, and international development. The AAEA publishes two journals, the American Journal of Agricultural Economics and Applied Economic Perspectives & Policy, as well as the online magazine Choices and the online open access publication series Applied Economics Teaching Resources. To learn more, visit

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