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New Director to Lead Duke-UNC-USDA Food Research Center

June 8, 2016

Physician and behavioral scientist Peter Ubel has been named the new director of a research center based at Duke that focuses on healthy eating.

The Duke-UNC USDA Center for Behavioral Economics and Healthy Food Choice Research (BECR Center) is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to promote healthy, economical food choice through the use of behavioral economics. The center is a collaboration between Duke and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

The BECR Center was founded by Matthew Harding, assistant professor of public policy and economics at Duke University. Harding has accepted a position as associate professor of economics and statistics at the University of California, Irvine, where he plans to launch the Deep Data Lab. It will focus on econometrics, machine learning and artificial intelligence in areas including energy, food consumption and transportation.

Ubel, the Madge and Dennis T. McLawhorn University Professor at Duke, has appointments in the Sanford School of Public Policy, Fuqua School of Business and Duke School of Medicine and is a member of the BECR Center investigative team. He uses the tools of decision psychology and behavioral economics to explore topics including informed consent, shared decision making and health care spending.

“USDA is appreciative of the important work being conducted by the BECR Center and looks forward to its continued success under Dr. Ubel’s leadership,” said Joanne Guthrie, assistant deputy director for nutrition in the USDA Food Assistance and Nutrition Research Program.

“Dr. Ubel’s outstanding research to improve our understanding of consumer decision making is well known and we feel very fortunate that he has accepted the position of center director.”

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  • Peter Ubel

    Peter Ubel will be the new director of the Duke-UNC USDA Center for Behavioral Economics and Healthy Food Choice Research (BECR Center.) 

Kelly Brownell, dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy and a BECR Center research team member, agreed. “I look forward to working with Peter, whose scholarship and leadership skills I admire. He is an ideal person to advance the health policy work begun by Matt Harding,” Brownell said.

The BECR Center researches new strategies to help low-income households enrolled in federal food assistance programs, such as WIC and SNAP, to make healthier food choices. In particular, it has explored the use of Big Data to better understand how consumers make food choices and developed large-scale randomized experiments in food retail stores that aim to shift the balance toward healthier foods in all purchasing environments.

“Matt Harding and his collaborators have done a great job of bringing new insights and new energy to these important topics,” Ubel said. “I’m eager to build on those insights, and help figure out innovative ways to help Americans make healthier food choices.”

“Ubel brings a distinct perspective to the BECR Center based on his experience as both a physician and health economist,” Harding said. “His core focus on marketing will prove extremely useful in addressing the very valid concerns which retailers and the business community have about the bottom-line impact of public health efforts.”

The UNC-Chapel Hill portion of the BECR team is led by Alice Ammerman, a professor of nutrition in the Gillings School of Global Public Health and director of the UNC Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention.

“Dr. Ubel’s expertise is a strong complement to the UNC team’s extensive experience with behavioral nutrition interventions serving low income populations (including those who receive SNAP and WIC benefits) to inform local and national nutrition policy,” said Ammerman.

Under Harding’s leadership, the BECR Center has awarded $250,000 in sub-grants to key research groups around the country and another $30,000 in New Perspectives Fellowships. The fellowships provide young researchers with personal experience of food insecurity or other disadvantage seed grants to investigate new and creative approaches to healthy food choices.

The center also conducted a yearlong research effort on WIC cost-containment strategies and organized a roundtable meeting for key stakeholders in Washington, D.C.