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From Scarcity to Prosperity: Nutrition & Food Spending Goals and Constraints for Americans with Low Incomes

Project Overview

To address challenges of food insecurity and poor nutrition, much depends on how families and individuals think about food-related problems and seek solutions. In this study, we will investigate nutrition and food security outcomes as a function of economic and non-economic factors.

Through this study, we will answer three critical questions that are central to understanding drivers of unhealthy eating for Americans with low income:

  1. What are the food aspirations of consumers with low income, and are they similar to or different from those of consumers with higher income?
  2. What nutrition perspectives, motivations, or theories do consumers with low income use when making food decisions?
  3. What economic and non-economic constraints prevent consumers from achieving their food aspirations?

The study has two parts:

  1. Examining large sets of data. This analysis is related to USDA’s Thrifty Food Plan (TFP), which informs the maximum benefit in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The TFP aims to choose a diet that is fairly close to current consumption, but different enough to satisfy a cost constraint (not too expensive) and dietary quality constraints (not too unhealthy). The TFP is a timely topic, because in August 2021 USDA increased the cost level of the TFP, which led to a large increase in the SNAP maximum benefit (
  2. Talking with consumers. To add realism and practical wisdom, this project also interviews food pantry clients in different regions of the country about food choices, nutrition, and budgeting.



January 1, 2022 -


Duke World Food Policy Center, Sanford School of Public Policy team:

  • Norbert L.W. Wilson
  • Sarah Zoubek
  • Jack Daly
  • Gizem Templeton

Tufts University team:

  • Sara Folta
  • Katrina Sarson
  • Jada Wensman
  • Katie Schroeder
  • Parke Wilde



The Duke Endowment