University of Houston study finds disparity in product quality and safety in low-income versus high-income communities

HOUSTON – Researchers at the University of Houston said that Houstonians living in low-income, urban neighborhoods are at a higher risk of developing gastrointestinal illnesses, likely related to the lettuce they buy at grocery stores in their area. community.

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

The researchers said the discovery raises questions about quality and safety.

“Looking at all of these empirical studies, there are a few questions we can ask ourselves. When do these disparities arise? Asked Sujata Sirsat, associate professor at the University of Houston – Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management and principal investigator for the study. So, for example, we look at the food supply chain. Is it different in any way? And if it’s no different in any way, what changes, say in weather and temperature or potential cross-contamination, are occurring, and at what stage do they occur? ”

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Researchers at the University of Houston set out to identify whether there were microbial differences between products in low-income grocery stores and those in high-income grocery stores.

KPRC 2 asked the question many of you might be asking – why Romaine Leaf Lettuce?

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

The 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. Neighborhoods were selected based on the United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service’s Food Access Research Atlas and the United States Census Bureau’s definition of neighborhoods to low and high socioeconomic status.

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Professor Sirsat said the results made one thing clear.

“What we saw in all areas, regardless of what we looked at, we saw an increase in the number of bacteria, including bacterial pathogens, on loose leaf romaine lettuce obtained in these low income neighborhoods.” , Sirsat said.

Of the results, 87% of samples purchased from low-income neighborhood stores tested positive for Staphylococcus aureus, or Staphylococcus. Sirsat said Staph is generally not life threatening, but can cause skin infections. She pointed out that the pathogen could prove fatal for the immunocompromised.

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

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

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

“I think there is a lot to study to provide historical context. There have been studies that demonstrate nutritional disparities, but there have been very few studies that identify disparities in food security and quality in low-income versus high-income neighborhoods, ”said said Sirsat.

Sirsat concluded that the study helps start a conversation about how to implement change. She said that among the suggestions was changing the food supply, with more emphasis on locally grown produce.

Houston is no stranger to local produce. In fact, several local farmers have long echoed what University of Houston research concludes about people living in low-income neighborhoods without access to good produce.

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“It puts data behind what we said,” said Ivy Walls, owner of Ivy Leaf Farms, a farm located in south Houston.

Walls built Ivy Leaf Farms on a pasture owned by his family. She grows and supplies produce to residents of Sunnyside and other areas where access is limited. In addition to selling its products, Walls also offers community programs on sustainability and learning about farming.

“It’s not charity. It’s more opportunity. I think 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 with a passion that stretches back generations. He created Fresh Life Organic in 2016. The program aims to build and develop farms in urban communities.

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

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“We are seeing a huge change in the supply chain in how goods are purchased, how they are sold and how they are consumed. “

However, to be successful, local farmers stressed that they needed everyone’s support. Peaches and Walls is the originator of the Black Farmer Box, a wholesale buying program that sells organic produce grown on local black-owned farms.

Walls said she was not sure there was a solution to closing the gap, but recognized the need for a series of solutions.

Peaches, who also builds urban farms throughout the Houston area, said teaching Houstonians how they can grow their own food also keeps the conversation going.

“Show all the different types of cropping systems to be able to grow food,” he said.

Copyright 2021 by KPRC Click2Houston – All rights reserved.

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