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Center for Policy Research

Working Paper

Does Proximity to Fast Food Cause Childhood Obesity? Evidence from Public Housing

Jeehee Han, Amy Ellen Schwartz & Brian Elbel

C.P.R. Working Paper No. 228

April 2020

Amy Ellen Schwartz

Amy Ellen Schwartz


The authors examine the causal link between proximity to fast food and the incidence of childhood obesity among low-income households in New York City.

Using individual-level longitudinal data on students living in public housing linked to restaurant location data, the authors exploit the naturally occurring within-development variation in distance to fast food restaurants to estimate the impact of proximity on obesity.

Since the assignment of households to specific buildings is based upon availability at the time of assignment to public housing, the distance between student residence and retail outlets—including fast food restaurants, wait-service restaurants, supermarkets, and corner stores—is plausibly random.

The authors credibly causal estimates suggest that childhood obesity increases with proximity to fast food, with larger effects for younger children who attend neighborhood schools.

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