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Food Choice With Economic Scarcity and Time Abundance: A Qualitative Study

Published: February 2022
Bibliographic reference: Folta, Sara C., Oyedolapo Anyanwu, Jennifer Pustz, Jennifer Oslund, Laura Paige Penkert, and Norbert Wilson. “Food Choice With Economic Scarcity and Time Abundance: A Qualitative Study.” Health Education & Behavior : The Official Publication of the Society for Public Health Education 49, no. 1 (February 2022): 150–58.

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Consumers with low income in the United States have higher vulnerability to unhealthy diets compared with the general population. Although some literature speculates that scarcity is an explanation for this disparity, empirical evidence is lacking. We conducted a qualitative study of food choice to explore whether scarcity-related phenomena, such as tunneling and bandwidth tax, may contribute to unhealthy dietary choices. We used participant-driven photo elicitation (n = 18) to investigate the food choice behaviors of individuals living in the greater Boston area who met the federal guidelines for poverty. Participants took photos at the point of food acquisition for 1 month, after which we interviewed them using a semistructured interview guide with the photos as prompts. Thematic coding was used for analysis. Respondents had relative time abundance. Two major themes emerged: participants used a set of strategies to stretch their budgets, and they highly prioritized cost and preference when making food choices. The extreme focus on obtaining food at low cost, which required time and effort, was suggestive of tunneling. We found no evidence of the bandwidth tax. Our findings raise the hypothesis of scarcity as a continuum: when individuals experience multiple resource constraints, they experience scarcity; whereas people with very limited finances and relative time abundance may instead be in a prescarcity condition, with a hyperfocus on a scarce resource that could lead to tunneling as constraints increase. Additional studies are needed to understand whether and how tunneling and bandwidth tax emerge, independently or together, as people face different levels and types of scarcity.