Food environments refer to the physical, economic, political and socio-cultural contexts in which consumers engage with the food system to make their decisions about acquiring, preparing and consuming food. Assessing food environments is an important step toward ensuring families have healthy, diverse diets. However, the majority of current food environment assessments have been developed and validated in high-income countries and may not be appropriate for evaluating food environments in low- and middle-income countries (LMIC). Food systems practitioners have acknowledged the importance of better defining food environments across various contexts and having assessments that work in LMIC to better understand those food environments. For example, a recently developed food environment typology that aims to support implementation and evaluation of interventions recognizes both natural (wild and cultivated) and built (informal and formal markets) food environments—not all of which are typically found in high-income countries. In many cases, informal markets (i.e. stalls, mobile vendors) are found in rural and urban areas of LMIC, whereas formal markets (i.e. supermarkets, convenience stores) are more common in both urban and rural high-income countries. Markets—in their various forms—are increasingly recognized as places in the food environment that influence consumers’ decisions about what foods to purchase, and ultimately consume, thereby affecting nutrition and health.
USAID Advancing Nutrition conducted a series of activities to better understand the suitability of food environment assessments for use in LMIC. A team of technical experts began by systematically identifying existing market-based assessments, conducting a series of ranking exercises, and consulting experts in food environment measurement to prioritize assessments most applicable for use in LMIC. Through the exercise, they identified food environment assessments most suitable for use in LMIC, which are also published in a peer-reviewed publication.
As a next step, USAID Advancing Nutrition piloted a package of seven assessments—including methods, tools, and metrics—to determine their suitability for use in LMIC. Findings from the four pilot tests conducted in Liberia, Honduras, Nigeria, and Timor-Leste, were used to refine a guidance package including an instructions manual and accompanying data collection and analysis tools to assess market food environments at the activity-level. The food environment assessment package will be useful to activity teams at the design stage as a part of formative research and contextual analysis. Findings from conducting the food environment assessments will help USAID and partners identify opportunities for market food environments to support healthy and safe diets year-round, and to contribute to improving nutrition and health outcomes.