Convenience Store Snacking Under the Microscope

Tufts University School of Medicine to study children's food choices in c-stores

Published in CSP Daily News

Sean Cash

BOSTON -- The Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston has received a $150,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food & Agriculture (USDA NIFA) for the CHOMPS Pilot Project, a coupon study to promote healthy snack options among adolescents in convenience stores.

The study will determine whether researchers can influence children's food-purchasing decisions by using price promotions for healthier food options in c-stores in Somerville, Mass., a racially diverse community where 68.3% of enrolled school children are low-income, the researchers said.

"We will develop simple interventions utilizing 'kids-only' coupons to encourage children to make healthier choices, and to understand how children consider price when making independent food purchase decisions," associate professor and project director Sean Cash said. "Our project involves three steps, namely, a natural observation phase, a 'coupon-intervention' phase and an individual assessment phase. During the natural observation, researchers will observe children's food purchase behavior. This information will be used as a baseline measure for comparison with purchase behavior during the coupon-intervention phase. In the final phase, children from the local area who are likely to have shopped in one of the participating stores will participate in individual interviews where they will respond to questions about the in-store coupons, and will also receive a short battery of tests to assess their language ability and cognitive development."

Cash said, "This grant will also support scoping of additional sites for scaling this intervention to other high-need communities across the country."

Researchers will observe children's existing food purchase behaviors. Factors will include the amount spent in one transaction; items purchased; whether children shop with friends, parents, siblings or alone; whether the item was on sale, bundled or paired; and more. This information will be used as a baseline measure for comparison with purchase behaviors during the intervention phase, which will also be collected by observation and by comparing store sales before and after the intervention. They will also collect and count the number of coupons the children use. The coupon intervention will involve coupons designed for use by children only.

"We plan to provide coupons to children at the point of sale to discount their purchases of healthful items, and to then assess how likely children are to purchase the healthful products with the coupons. Prior to the coupon intervention, we will pretest coupon samples through focus group discussions with children in order to assist us in designing the most effective coupon," Cash said.

This phase involves one-on-one interviews with a subsample of children recruited via afterschool programs and community groups using a screening question to determine whether they visited any of the intervention stores during the intervention period. Children will participate in a scripted interview about the in-store coupons. The interview will ask questions about whether students noticed the coupons, if they used them, what they did and did not find appealing about the coupons, their ease of use, why they thought the coupons existed and more.

The script will be designed to use age-appropriate language and will be edited by a child development expert.

The purpose of the developmental assessments is to determine whether children's responsiveness to the intervention, or lack thereof, is in any way linked to an ability to navigate their environment due to low or high scores in different areas of development. During the interview, children will have responded to questions about peer influence on food choice and this may be directly related to social skills development.

NIFA also awarded a $4.9 million grant to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Tenn., for " Get Fruved," a peer-led, train-the-trainer social marketing intervention to increase fruit and vegetable intake and prevent childhood obesity, and a $150,000 grant to Winston-Salem State University, Winston-Salem, N.C., for Childhood Health & Obesity Initiative: Communities Engaged for Success, which seeks to help 10-to-12 year-old children from low income families.

NIFA made the awards through the Agriculture & Food Research Initiative (AFRI) Childhood Obesity Prevention program.

Improving child nutrition is a focal point of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act signed by President Obama in Dec. 2010, the legislative centerpiece of First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move! Initiative.