Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Member Profile: Andrea Carlson

Andrea Carlson
USDA-Economic Research Service

AAEA Activities: Food Safety and Nutrition Section Chair, 2005-2006
Andrea Carlson joined the USDA-Economic Research Service in December 2009, after nearly ten years at the USDA-Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion (CNPP). While at CNPP she was the project lead for the USDA Food Plans, including the Thrifty Food Plan. The USDA Food Plans use mathematical optimization models to estimate four food budgets that both meet the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and are comprised of foods that are commonly consumed by Americans. The Thrifty Food Plan budget is used to estimate the annual cost of living adjustment to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as Food Stamps. She also worked with CNPP nutritionists to revise the Healthy Eating Index, and with fellow economist, Mark Lino, to update USDA’s Cost of Raising a Child estimates, used by many states to set child support, and foster care payments.

Since coming to ERS, Andrea has expanded the scope of her research to examine the impact of the metric used to measure food prices, the overall impact of food expenditure on diet quality, changes in milk consumption patterns, organic foods, and the impact of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans on agricultural land, employment and energy resources.

There are multiple ways to measure food prices. For example, economists typically use $/pound. Closely related, though more difficult to calculate, is $/edible pound where the weight is the weight actually consumed—without the peels, shells, skin, bones or seeds, and with any water or fat added during the cooking process. Nutritionists have used $/calorie, but make dietary recommendations in terms of cups or ounces—suggesting that $/cup or $/ounce might be a good metric. The answer to the question of whether healthy food is more expensive than less healthy food changes depending on the metric. Using $/calorie makes vegetables look very expensive since they are low in calories, but using $/pound, $/edible pound, or $/cup suggests that a wide variety of vegetables are affordable, even to those receiving SNAP benefits.

What if we now look at the estimated food budgets of average Americans on a day when they are not necessarily trying to eat a healthy diet? It turns out that the expenditure has only a very limited impact on the healthfulness of the diet. Much more important factors include lifestyle, education, health behaviors, and where individuals choose to purchase their food that day.

Andrea earned a BA in physics from St. Olaf College, in Northfield, MN, a MS in International Development and Appropriate Technology from the University of Pennsylvania, and a PhD in Agricultural and Applied Economics from the University of Minnesota. Her dissertation was on the impact of WIC and Food Stamps on children’s health. She also spent a year as a Prevention Effectiveness Fellow at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, working on lead poisoning prevention.

This post is part of an ongoing series of profiles of AAEA members. Have a suggestion for a future profile? Send them to Info@aaea.org.

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