Scale effects in food environment research: Implications from assessing socioeconomic dimensions of supermarket accessibility in an eight-county region of South Carolina

Choice of neighborhood scale affects associations between environmental attributes and health-related outcomes. This phenomenon, a part of the modifiable areal unit problem, has been described fully in geography but not as it relates to food environment research. Using two administrative-based geographic boundaries (census tracts and block groups), supermarket geographic measures (density, cumulative opportunity and distance to nearest) were created to examine differences by scale and associations between three common U.S. Census-based socioeconomic status (SES) characteristics (median household income, percentage of population living below poverty and percentage of population with at least a high school education) and a summary neighborhood SES z-score in an eight-county region of South Carolina. General linear mixed-models were used. Overall, both supermarket density and cumulative opportunity were higher when using census tract boundaries compared to block groups. In analytic models, higher median household income was significantly associated with lower neighborhood supermarket density and lower cumulative opportunity using either the census tract or block group boundaries, and neighborhood poverty was positively associated with supermarket density and cumulative opportunity. Both median household income and percent high school education were positively associated with distance to nearest supermarket using either boundary definition, whereas neighborhood poverty had an inverse association. Findings from this study support the premise that supermarket measures can differ by choice of geographic scale and can influence associations between measures. Researchers should consider the most appropriate geographic scale carefully when conducting food environment studies. (C) 2016 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.