Publication Spotlight: Exploring the Impact of Policies to Improve Geographic and Economic Access to Vegetables among Low-Income, Predominantly Latino Urban Residents: An Agent-Based Model

Published: April 12, 2022

The publication “Exploring the Impact of Policies to Improve Geographic and Economic Access to Vegetables among Low-Income, Predominantly Latino Urban Residents: An Agent-Based Modeldeveloped an agent-based model to simulate the food environment of Austin, Texas, USA, and tested the impact of different food access policies on vegetable consumption among low-income, predominantly Latino residents. The development of this agent-based model was led by former Center Faculty Member Dr. Deborah Salvo and Dr. Pablo Lemoine and contributed to by Center Faculty Drs. Alexandra van den Berg and Nalini Ranjit, post-doctoral fellow Dr. Katie Janda, and Center staff member Aida Nielsen. 

Agent-based modeling is a methodology that can be used to simulate large-scale policies and programs and examine the impact of implementing policies and programs. Large-scale solutions are required for reverting the obesity epidemic in the US. A large body of evidence links policy and environmental factors to healthy eating behaviors. For example, geographic and economic access to food are known to be critical in shaping food consumption patterns in communities. 

The agent-based model developed in this study simulated five policy scenarios: (1) business as usual; (2)–(4) expanding geographic and/or economic healthy food access via the Fresh for Less program (i.e., through farm stands, mobile markets, and healthy corner stores); and (5) expanding economic access to vegetables in supermarkets and small grocers. 

The developed model suggests that, if implemented at a larger scale, mobile markets and/or farm stands could be effective strategies for improving vegetable consumption among low-income, diverse urban residents. As well, the results suggest that reducing the cost of vegetables by 50% in the stores mostly used by community members to buy foods (supermarkets and small grocery stores) could be a promising approach for improving vegetable intake among low-income residents. 

Also, the results of the study indicated that even though some studies have found healthy corner stores as a potential strategy to improve the access to and consumption of healthy foods among low-income populations, the modeling results of this study suggest that investing in scaling up this strategy is unlikely to yield meaningful gains in vegetable consumption among low-income, urban residents. It was also found that improving geographic access alone (i.e., increasing the number of convenience stores in low-income neighborhoods) was the least effective strategy for improving vegetable intake among low-income residents. 

The agent-based model presented in this paper is one of multiple components of the Food Retail: Evaluating Strategies for a Healthy Austin (FRESH-Austin) Study, led by Center Faculty member, Dr. Alexandra van den Berg. The FRESH-Austin Study aims to comprehensively assess the City of Austin’s Fresh for Less Program and to increase our understanding of the complexities involved in designing and implementing effective food access policies in low-income, diverse urban communities. If you would like to learn more about the parent study view this publication.