Food Prices, Time Values, and Time Spent on Food Shopping and Meal Preparation: Rural-Urban Disparities

Year: 2014

Research Center: Southern Rural Development Center, Mississippi State University

Investigator: Zhang, Ning and Chad D. Meyerhoefer

Institution: University of Massachusetts-Amherst

Project Contact:
Ning Zhang
University of Massachusetts-Amherst
Department of Health Promotion and Policy
School of Public Health and Health Sciences
Arnold Building 324
715 N. Pleasant Street
Amherst, MA 01003
Phone: 413-545-1801


Obesity in the United States is not only a public health concern, it also deteriorates rural-urban disparities in various health conditions. In general, obesity rates in rural areas are higher than in urban areas. Studies have suggested that eating habits may be one reason for these disparities. However, differences in the determinants of eating habits between rural and urban residents are still unknown. This study addresses the influence of price on eating patterns between people living in rural or urban locations, as well as whether price effects contribute to the rural-urban disparities in obesity.

This study aims to identify the following: (1) rural-urban differences in time spent on food shopping, meal preparation, at-home eating, and eating at restaurants; (2) how food prices and time value (measured by wages) affect time allocation and how rural residents vary in this relationship; and (3) how changes in time allocation affect weight status and the manner in which resident location affects this relationship.

This study employs three secondary data sources for the years 2002 to 2009: the American Time Use Survey (ATUS), March Current Population Survey (CPS), and Nielsen Homescan data. The ATUS is the first federally administered, continuous survey on time use in the United States. This unique survey measures how people divide their time among life’s activities within a typical 24-hour day. The study limits its sample to adults 20-64 years of age. ATUS provides information on time spent on food shopping and preparation, location of meals, as well as resident location and family background. The top module of ATUS is used in the first two aims. To examine aim 3, the Eating and Health Module of ATUS (2006-09) is used as only this specific module includes the weight status of each respondent.

March CPS is the Annual Social and Economic Supplement of the CPS. This is the primary source of labor force statistics for the population of the United States. March CSP provides employment status, salary base, and income received in the previous calendar year. This information is tapped as the measure for the time value of adults who are employed in non-farming industries. Forty-five percent March CPS respondents had a valid county code, hence merged with ATUS respondents. The final ATUS-CPS data had 151,236 individuals.

The Quarterly Food-at-Home Price Database, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, is used to provide the food prices at market level by food categories (for example, fruit and vegetables), based on by Nielsen Homescan data.

Aim 1: Identify rural-urban differences in time spent on food shopping, meal preparation, at-home eating, and eating at restaurants.

On average per week, people living in an urban area (defined as metropolitan area) spent 28 minutes on grocery shopping while those living in rural area spent 22 minutes (including travel time). Urban dwellers spent 34 minutes, compared with 38 minutes for rural residents, on food preparation. The differences in these two measures were persistent during 2002-09, even considering the economic recession in 2008. Each week, people living in urban areas spent 50 minutes eating at home and 17 minutes eating out in a restaurant whereas rural residents spent 51 minutes eating at home and 13 minutes eating out. It is not surprising that people increased their time eating at home and reduced their time eating out in both areas between 2007 and 2009. Analysis also shows that the differences in eating out in a restaurant between urban and rural residents were larger in 2009 than in 2002. These results supported the hypothesis that differences existed in food related activities between people living in rural and urban areas.

Aim 2: Identify the relationship between food prices and individual time values with time spent on food shopping, meal preparation, at-home and away-from-home eating.

Prices of grains, fruit, vegetable, meat and dairy were separately investigated. State average wages for a specific industry were used to measure the individual time values. Significant results were found particularly in time spent on eating out in a restaurant. Specifically, a 10-cent increase in grains or dairy would result in 11 less minutes (weekly) eating out for rural residents compared with urban residents. A 10-cent increase in vegetable prices was translated into almost 7 minutes less in eating out for rural residents. Results remained significant if the rural area indicator interacted with these three prices, but lost all significance when the rural indictor interacted with salary.

Aim 3: Identify how changes in food shopping, meal preparation, and at-home and away-from-home eating affect weight status.

Findings showed that a 4-minute difference in weekly eating out in a restaurant was associated with 1.9 body mass index (BMI, defined as body weight divided by square of body height). This result increased to 3.3 BMI if salary and rural indicator were interacted. However, these changes in BMI were not enough to change a weight category for a person.