Nutrition | Illinois Prevention Research Center | University of Illinois at Chicago

You are here:

© Business Images

Easy availability of fruits and vegetables — along with whole grains and low-fat, low-sugar drinks — is critical to lowering obesity in our communities.

In low-income and predominantly black neighborhoods, where obesity rates are highest, supermarkets and stores that sell produce and other healthy grocery items are scarce. Convenience stores that do exist in those communities offer fewer healthful items in comparison those in higher-income and white neighborhoods. Such food deserts are home to over 500,000 people in Illinois.

To address this problem, the federal government began an initiative in 2011 to promote the development of local food outlet retail to increase the availability of healthful food in low-income, urban communities. Called the Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI), this program is supporting development of food outlets in low-income, economically depressed areas across Illinois.

Assessing the Healthy Food Financing Initiative

Researchers and policymakers have noted barriers to and challenges in implementing this federal initiative. No evidence yet exists on its effects on existing stores selling food in these neighborhoods or unintended consequences from this initiative. Illinois PRC researchers are stepping into this void to evaluate the impact of the initiative in multiple sites in Chicago and in Rockford.


In this study, an Illinois PRC team is assessing the impact of the introduction of a new HFFI-supported grocery store on the retail food environment in  predominantly African American, low-income communities in Chicago and Rockford. Matched communities with similar populations  serve as control sites in this quasi-natural experiment. Illinois PRC scientists will collect, analyze and track data before and after the opening of the new food outlets to answer the following questions:

  • How easily can healthy foods and drinks be found in small existing stores, before and after the introduction of the new HFFI-supported grocery store?
  • How cheap or expensive are healthy foods and drinks?
  • How much promotion of healthy food is found inside the stores and on their exterior marketing?
  • How do these factors differ for junk food and soda, as well as other unhealthy food and drinks?
  • What are the characteristics of food retail venues selling healthy and unhealthy food in the area?
  • How does the new grocery store itself change over time?
  • What are the availability, prices, and marketing of healthy foods and drinks in the new food retail over the short term and long term?
  • What are the availability, prices, and marketing of less healthy foods and drinks in the new store over time?

This study will lead to a  clearer understanding of the impacts of the introduction of HFFI-supported food outlets on the local food retail environment. Illinois PRC will share what we learn with community stakeholders in Chicago and Rockford as we discover evidence in this study. Our findings will help inform policymakers at all levels of government on potential strategies needed to maximize the policy’s impact on improving the availability of healthy foods in underserved communities nationwide.


Illinois PRC scientists working on this project have extensive experience in research on nutrition and obesity-related environmental systems and policy, particularly related to healthy food access in urban and rural areas.

This research is led by Dr. Lisa Powell, the principal investigator of this special interest project in the Nutrition and Obesity Policy Research and Evaluation Network as well as the Illinois PRC.

Other members of the project team include:

  • Ana Duran, postdoctoral fellow
  • Jamie Chriqui, PhD, MHS, co-investigator
  • Hansoo Ko, research assistant
  • Yu Li, research assistant
  • Angela Odoms-Young, PhD, co-investigator
  • Chelsea Singleton, postdoctoral fellow
  • Shannon Zenk, PhD, MPH, RN, co-investigator


A number of partners are helping to guide this project including the Chicago Department of Public Health, the IFF financing fund, and the Chicago Community Loan Fund.


The Illinois PRC is a collaborating member of the Nutrition and Obesity Policy Research and Evaluation Network, or NOPREN, which aims to improve nutrition and reduce obesity through policy research and evaluation. Network members identify policies that foster or inhibit healthy lifestyles; describe policy development and implementation; and assess whether they are effective, cost-efficient, equitable, and sustainable.

Funded by CDC’s Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity, the network includes the Prevention Research Centers at these institutions:

In addition to the HFFI study in Chicago and Rockford, Illinois PRC researchers contribute to this network’s research projects, participate in workgroups on emerging policy issues related to nutrition and obesity such as school wellness policies, water access, early care and education, and the retail food environment. We also aim to bring our local partners — Illinois health departments, practitioners, and other partners — into national discussions.

Learn more about this network.


View a presentation that describes this research in more detail.

Learn about other Illinois PRC efforts to reduce obesity.

Visit the Healthy Food Access Portal for more information about the Healthy Food Financing Initiative.

Read about the Illinois Fresh Food Fund, which oversees the HFFI in our state.


This work is a special interest project funded as a competitive supplement grant (SIP14-027) by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to the Illinois Prevention Research Center (under Cooperative Grant No. U48-DP005010), which is administered by the Institute for Health Research and Policy of the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC).