University of Houston study finds disparity in quality and safety produce in low vs. high-income communities

This new UH study showed that people in low income areas are receiving a lesser quality in produce

HOUSTON – Researchers from the University of Houston said Houstonians living in low-income and urban neighborhoods are at a higher risk of contracting gastrointestinal illnesses, possibly linked to the lettuce they purchase from grocery stores in their community.

The findings, published Thursday in the Journal of Food Protection, focus on loose-leaf romaine lettuce. According to the study, loose-leaf romaine lettuce, when purchased from supermarkets in low-income communities in Houston, was found to be contaminated with disease-causing microorganisms.

Researchers said the discovery raises questions about quality and safety.

“Looking at all these empirical studies, there are a few questions we can ask.  At what point do these disparities arise?” asked Sujata Sirsat, an associate professor at the University of Houston - Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management and lead researcher for the study. So for example, we look at the food supply chain. Is it different in any way? And if it’s not different in any way, what are the changes in, say time and temperature or potential cross-contamination that occurs, and what stage do they occur?”

Researchers at the University of Houston endeavored to identify whether microbial differences existed between produce in low-income grocery stores vs. high-income grocery stores.

KPRC 2 posed the question many of you may be thinking - why loose leaf romaine lettuce?

“We focused on leafy greens because, historically, we’ve seen over the past couple of decades that food commodities are very often associated with foodborne illness outbreaks across the country,” Sirsat said.

Researchers purchased lettuce from an even number of stores in two communities -- one in a low-income neighborhood and the other in a high-income neighborhood. The neighborhoods were chosen based on the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service Food Access Research Atlas and U.S. Census Bureau definition of low and high socioeconomic status neighborhoods.

Professor Sirsat said the findings made one thing clear.

“What we saw across the board, regardless of what we were looking at, we saw an increase in the number of bacteria, including bacterial pathogens, on loose-leaf romaine lettuce obtained from these low-income neighborhoods,” Sirsat said.

Among the findings, 87% of samples purchased from stores in the low-income neighborhood tested positive for staphylococcus aureus, or staph. Sirsat said Staph isn’t typically life-threatening but can cause skin infections.  She stressed the pathogen could prove life-threatening for the immunosuppressed.

Fifty-three percent tested positive for salmonella, while 13% were contaminated with listeria monocytogenes. Four percent of samples purchased in a low-income neighborhood tested positive for E. coli.

Sirsat said none of the lettuce purchased from stores in the high-income neighborhood tested positive for the pathogens. Staph was the sole exception, with 38% of the lettuce purchased testing positive.

Sirsat said the study does not provide a solution, but rather, it establishes a problem by providing a data-based correlation between access to nutrient-rich, quality produce, and health disparities based on socioeconomic status.

“I think there are a lot of things to investigate to provide some historical context. There have been studies that demonstrate nutritional disparities, but there have been very few studies that identify the food safety and quality disparities in low versus high-income neighborhoods,” Sirsat said.

Sirsat concluded the study allows for a conversation to begin about how to implement change.  She said among the suggestions was changing food supply, with a stronger focus on locally grown produce.

Houston is no stranger to local produce. In fact, several local farmers have long echoed what the University of Houston’s research conclude about people who live in low-income neighborhoods not having access to good produce.

“It puts data behind what we’ve been saying,” said Ivy Walls, owner of Ivy Leaf Farms, a farm located on Houston’s southside.

Walls built Ivy Leaf Farms on a pasture her family owns. She grows and provides produce to the residents of Sunnyside and other area neighborhoods where access is limited. Along with selling her produce, Walls also offers community programs on sustainability and learning how to farm.

“It’s not charity. This is more opportunity. I believe everyone should have the opportunity to eat fresh no matter where you live and who you are,” Walls said.

Jeremy Peaches is also a farmer whose passion stretches back generations. He created Fresh Life Organic in 2016. The program works to build and grow farms in urban communities.

Both Peaches and Walls said urban farms should no longer be considered an oddity because they’re necessary. Peaches said supply chain shortages during the pandemic underscore the need.

“We see a huge shift in the supply chain on how goods are bought and how it’s sold and how it’s consumed.”

However, in order to be successful, local farmers stressed they needed everyone’s support.  Peaches and Walls are behind the Black Farmer Box, a wholesale purchase program that sells organic produce grown on local, Black-owned farms.

Walls said she’s not sure if there is one solution to bridging the gap, but acknowledged the need for a series of solutions.

Peaches, who also build urban farms throughout the Houston area, said teaching Houstonians how they can grow their own food pushes the conversation forward, as well.

“Showing all different types of growing systems to be able to grow food,” he said.

About the Author:

Emmy and Edward R. Murrow award-winning journalist. NOLA born and bred, though #HoustonStrong, with stops in Minnesota, New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut in along the way.