Experts Recommend U.S. Food and Nutrition Data System for Future

Photo of two young girls eating breakfast.
A panel led by UC Davis economist Marianne Bitler outlines an agenda for the next decade of research by the USDA Food Economics Division on food safety and prices, consumer food choices, and food assistance programs.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Economics Division should expand data holdings to step up its research on how and what Americans are eating, who struggles to put food on the table, and how well federal nutrition assistance programs are working, according to a panel of experts led by UC Davis economist Marianne Bitler.

Portrait photo of UC Davis economist Marianne Bitler
Marianne Bitler

Bitler, a professor of economics in the College of Letters and Science, and other members of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine panel outlined a blueprint for the next decade for the Food Economics Division of the USDA’s Economic Research Service — making recommendations on how to collect the best data that is comprehensive, accurate, accessible, timely and cost-effective.

The Economic Research Service in 2018 requested guidance from the NAS regarding the Food Economics Division’s research agenda on food safety and prices, consumer food choices, and food programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (commonly known as food stamps), the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), and the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs.

The panel’s report, “A Consumer Food Data System for 2030 and Beyond,” released in late February, represents a consensus among 13 economists, agricultural economists, sociologists, data scientists, statisticians and nutrition experts. Tim Beatty, a UC Davis professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, was also a panel member.

The 180-page report stresses the importance of the Food Economics Division’s research and data collection in informing policy decisions on nutrition assistance programs and understanding how Americans’ food choices influence their health costs, which in turn affect costs of government health programs.

“If we don’t collect data on them, then we don’t know what the food assistance programs did,” Bitler said in a recent interview. “It’s our money that funds the programs. To be responsible stewards of our money, we should know what the outcomes from the programs are.”

As an economist, Bitler researches the effects of government safety net programs on disadvantaged groups. An affiliate of the UC Davis Center for Poverty Research, she previously served on a NASEM panel that reviewed the revised food package for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).

Recommendations to expand data sources

Because of growing costs and declining rates of participation in surveys, the committee recommended the Food Economics Division rely on a mix of data, linking its survey results with administrative information from government agencies as well as grocery store scanner data on prices and quantities and other commercial data.

Among other recommendations, the panel said the Food Economics Division should:

  • Repeat the National Household Food Acquisition and Purchase Survey (FoodAPS) on a regular schedule, such as once every five years. Conducted in 2012-13, FoodAPS was the first nationally representative study of Americans’ food consumption — at home and away from home — and factors influencing their food choices.   
  • Advocate for continued funding for data collection, giving high priority to food security in supplemental questions in the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey and other surveys.
  • Maintain up-to-date databases of how state and local governments implement federally funded food assistance programs, allowing researchers to better study the impact of policy changes.
  • Continue to incorporate administrative data and commercial proprietary data into their data system along with survey data.
  • Make data more accessible to outside researchers and policy makers, while protecting the privacy of individuals and proprietary data of retailers.

Ironically, no amount of data can predict the future for the Economic Research Service. In spite of the report aimed at improving the data available to researchers and policymakers, the service’s capacity is shrinking. Midway through the panel’s 18-month review, the USDA relocated the bulk of the Economic Research Service from Washington, D.C., to Kansas City, prompting about two-thirds of its employees to resign. President Donald Trump’s proposed 2020-21 budget also includes major funding cuts for the service.

— Kathleen Holder, content strategist in the UC Davis College of Letters and Science