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Coping Strategies, Food Preferences, and Their Potential Effects on Dietary Quality Intake in a Massachusetts Efnep Population

Food security is the ability to obtain enough nutritionally adequate food at all times. In 2011, 14.9% of U.S. households were food insecure. Food insecure populations have increased risk of chronic diseases and micronutrient deficiencies. Cyclical resource attainment may lead to inconsistent energy intakes, while resource management skills like budgeting may counter this. Qualitative research is limited on food preferences, what is purchased during resource constraint and how they compare with dietary recommendations. This study describes food choices and coping strategies that low-income, food insecure households use to obtain foods when resources are constrained. Four sets of two focus groups recruited SNAP participants and eligibles from Massachusetts (total participants=22) to discuss (1) food choices and planning and (2) purchasing strategies utilized. Content analysis was used to describe “favorite/important”, “healthy” and “unhealthy” foods, foods purchased, coping strategies, and to compare responses with USDA food groups. Participants were classified as cyclic (evidence of uneven monthly food purchases) or constant spenders (evidence of constant monthly food purchases). Reported coping strategies and food purchases were compared between cyclic and constant spenders. Protein/meat, grains, and vegetables were top “favorite/important” choices. Top “healthy” food designations were vegetables, proteins and grains, which closely mirrored USDA recommendations. Four self-described “unhealthy” food categories emerged: fast/take-out; “processed”; solid-fat home foods; sugar-laden desserts/beverages. Fourteen participants were classified as “cyclic”, while seven participants as “constant”. Cyclic spenders utilized coping strategies similarly described to obtain “enough” food and exhibited unsustainable practices as depriving self for others. Constant spenders closely matched resource management strategies utilized to obtain the “kinds” of foods desired, like budgeting. While other food purchases were similar, cyclic spenders reported not purchasing fruit and vegetables in times of constrained resources. This study provides needed qualitative information on how low-income individuals describe important, healthy and unhealthy foods and what is purchased in times of resource constraints. These findings support previous research showing cyclical resource attainment can lead to nutritional risks, while financial management skills can increase food security through constant access to foods. The results highlight the need for resource management education and stress specific areas of nutrition education.