I spent the last few days listening to current research on how the food environment influences food choices; the conference was held at Tufts University, and was co-sponsored by the Agricultural & Applied Economics Association and the European Association of Agricultural Economists. Kathleen Merrigan opened the conference with a pro-USDA talk, where she highlighted the role USDA plays in broadening food access (and promoted the new Know Your Farmer Compass). Despite my affection for Kathleen and my admiration for what she has accomplished, I found the pro-USDA talk a bit much.
There were three papers I found especially fascinating. The first was written by an economist who works for INRA (loosely translated as the French research institute for agriculture): France Caillavet. Her paper was a fascinating exploration of food access in Paris (her work in Paris is similar to what I am attempting to do in Manhattan). The first layer of her work incorporates the food environment, which is an exploration of the geographic location of stores. She uses this data to develop an indicator of food deserts in Paris. The second layer of her work incorporates food purchasing behavior for about 1900 individuals, which collects data on the outlets they visit, travel time to retail venues, and social environmental variable. Using these two datasets in tandem, she and her coauthor create measures of the clustering of the food supply in specific localities.
The next body of work that I was particularly jazzed about was also by a French researcher: Pierre Chandon of INSEAD. His most well known contribution to the literature is the concept of “health halos,” which revealed the fact that health claims or health beliefs encourage consumers to eat more food than they would have in the absence of the health claim or the belief. For example, people might eat a greater number of organic Oreos than they would of conventional Oreos. Of course, clever marketers take advantage of this aspect of consumer behavior. His work was highlighted in the New York Times a few years ago. One of his main points on Wednesday was that we could reduce consumption of unhealthy food by taking advantage of the way people process information: downsize the package. This will encourage people to eat less, and will also let marketers charge higher prices (he called this a win-win situation).
The final paper (only final because it is the last one I listened to!) that captivated me was by Nathan Nunn, an economic historian. He presented work in progress that links shifts in agricultural production technology to beliefs about gender roles. Using an incredible data set (I wonder where he found some of the data – of course, I am sure the sources are in the actual paper), he and a co-author found that a shift in production technology from hoeing to ploughing created beliefs about gender roles that persisted for generations (at least 2, I think he said). The plough requires significant upper body strength while the hoe is easier to handle; this set up more specific gender roles about “women’s work” and “men’s work.” The paper is on his website (linked above) and is called “On the Origins of Gender Roles: Women and the Plough” (with Alberto Alesina and Paola Giuliano)