How did the unhealthy food environment evolve in New York City?

PHI|Lab member Nico Berger, in collaboration with the Built Environment and Health Research Group at Columbia University, recently published a study on changes in the unhealthy food environment in New York City. The study found that the number of food outlets selling calorie-dense foods such as pizza and pastries dramatically increased between 1990 and 2010. However, changes were not the same in all neighbourhoods: neighbourhoods with a higher initial number of unhealthy food outlets in 1990 experienced a more rapid increase over time. Greater increase in unhealthy food outlets were observed in neighbourhood with higher population size, lower income, and lower proportion of Black residents. Greater unhealthy food outlet increases were also noted in the context of neighbourhood change suggestive of urbanization (increasing population density) or increasing purchasing power (increasing income).


This study used longitudinal data from the National Establishment Time-Series (NETS), a large historical dataset of retail businesses. Neighbourhoods were defined using administrative census tracts. The number of retail outlets selling ‘BMI-unhealthy’ foods was counted every year at census tract-level. BMI-unhealthy food outlets included convenience stores, ‘bodegas’ or very small grocery stores, fast food restaurants, pizza restaurants, bakery or candy/confectionary stores, and meat markets.

Trajectories of changes were analysed using Latent Class Growth Analysis in order to identify neighbourhoods with similar patterns of changes, which were summarized with five latent classes.


This study concludes that initiatives to reduce neighbourhood exposure to unhealthy food should focus on disadvantaged neighbourhoods in order to reduce environmental and health disparities. Attention should be given to the broader retail business context to ensure changes do not have the unintended consequence of increased health disparities.

Berger, Nicolas; Kaufman, Tanya K; Bader, Michael DM; Rundle, Andrew G; Mooney, Stephen J; Neckerman, Kathryn M; Lovasi, Gina S. Disparities in trajectories of changes in the unhealthy food environment in New York city: A latent class growth analysis, 1990–2010. 2019. Social Science & Medicine.