Health & Science

It’s Harder To Get Produce That’s Safe To Eat In Houston’s Food Deserts, New Study Says

Researchers found produce purchased in low-income neighborhoods were more likely to carry pathogens compared to wealthier areas of the city.

A man shops for vegetables beside romaine lettuce for sale at a supermarket in Los Angeles.

A new study found that fresh produce in low-income Houston neighborhoods is more likely to carry pathogens that cause food-borne illness compared to wealthier areas of the city.

Researchers at the University of Houston went to supermarkets in 10 neighborhoods across the city from June to December of 2020. They bought romaine lettuce, due to its association with foodborne illnesses, and tested their purchases for various types of bacteria.

In low-income neighborhoods, more than 50% of the samples tested positive for salmonella, while 0% tested positive in high-income neighborhoods. Additionally, 87% of samples from low-income neighborhoods were contaminated with bacteria that causes staph food poisoning and 13% had bacteria causing listeria.

"Our question was: will we see a disparity?" said Sujata Sirsat, one of the authors of the study. "Just historically, based on the previous empirical evidence and the fact that there is a nutrition disparity in terms of access, the likelihood was pretty high. And that’s what we saw."

A map of Houston highlighting underserved areas with low access to food.

Access to fresh produce is an issue for many low-income Houstonians — especially for those who reside on the east side of the city — due to their proximity to supermarkets. Often, these residents rely on packaged goods available at gas stations and corner stores for nutrition and sustenance.

However, the study now confirms that food safety poses yet another barrier to access, according to Sirsat. She added that the study could potentially lead to many more questions to further investigate.

"What I would like for this study is to be the foundation of future studies," Sirsat said. "Is it because of turnover? Is it because of practices specifically within that store? Is it because of something that’s happening in the food supply chain? Like, what is going on?"

Disclosure: Houston Public Media is a service of the University of Houston.