Household Food Consumption Surveys

The USDA has conducted household food consumption surveys for about 100 years. In 1894 Congress mandated that human nutrition investigations be conducted by the USDA Office of Experiment Stations. W. O. Atwater, the first director of the Experiment Stations, is credited with the first food consumption studies in the United States in the late 1800s. He recognized the essential links between such studies and research on food composition, nutritional requirements, and dietary guidance, and he pioneered studies in all of these areas. Atwater (11,12) sought food consumption information that would help him develop recommendations on what a working man should eat and how families could spend their food money wisely. By 1898 USDA investigators had made studies of food consumption by more than 300 families (13). In early studies, participants were "willing families." Researchers used a food inventory-record to collect data by determining the weight and cost of food used by the family from inventories of food on hand at the start and end of the survey period and records of foods brought into the home during the period (14).

Because this complex procedure was found to be too intrusive, too time-consuming, and too costly, it was replaced in the 1930s by the food list-recall (or food list). The new technique required only an interview with the household respondent (usually the homemaker) who recalled, using the food list, the quantities of listed foods used by the household during the preceding week and the amounts paid for purchased items. Although the list-recall procedure was introduced with little preliminary study, response rates for the food list-recall were later shown to be much higher than for the food inventory-record method (8).

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