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Open Access Short paper

The neighborhood food environment: sources of historical data on retail food stores

May C Wang12*, Alma A Gonzalez13, Lorrene D Ritchie2 and Marilyn A Winkleby3

Author Affiliations

1 School of Public Health, University of California at Berkeley, CA, USA

2 Center for Weight & Health, College of Natural Resources & School of Public Health, University of California at Berkeley, CA, USA

3 Stanford Prevention Research Center, Stanford University School of Medicine, USA

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International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity 2006, 3:15  doi:10.1186/1479-5868-3-15

Published: 17 July 2006


With the rapidly increasing prevalence of obesity in the United States, and the minimal success of education-based interventions, there is growing interest in understanding the role of the neighborhood food environment in determining dietary behavior. This study, as part of a larger study, identifies historical data on retail food stores, evaluates strengths and limitations of the data for research, and assesses the comparability of historical retail food store data from a government and a commercial source.

Five government and commercial listings of retail food stores were identified. The California State Board of Equalization (SBOE) database was selected and then compared to telephone business directory listings. The Spearman's correlation coefficient was used to assess the congruency of food store counts per census tract between the SBOE and telephone business directory databases. The setting was four cities in Northern California, 1979–1990.

The SBOE and telephone business directory databases listed 127 and 351 retail food stores, respectively. The SBOE listed 36 stores not listed by the telephone business directories, while the telephone business directories listed 260 stores not listed by the SBOE. Spearman's correlation coefficients between estimates of stores per census tract made from the SBOE listings and those made from the telephone business directory listings were approximately 0.5 (p < .0001) for the types of stores studied (chain supermarkets, small grocery stores, and chain convenience markets). We conclude that, depending on the specific aims of the study, caution and considerable effort must be exercised in using and applying historical data on retail food stores.