Residents in poor neighborhoods have historically lacked access to fresh fruits and vegetables. To make matters worse, they tend to have the highest percentage of fast-food restaurants, making healthful eating a challenge. 

Now, a new study reveals that bacteria, mold and yeast levels on fresh produce may be higher in low socioeconomic areas. 

Researchers at Drexel University in Philadelphia compared bacteria, yeast and mold levels on identical products sold in six area neighborhoods, three of which had the city’s highest poverty levels. Among the poorest groups, consumers were often forced to depend on small markets that offered less variety in fruits and vegetables. 

The researchers found that ready-to-eat salads and strawberries sold in stores in the poorer neighborhoods had significantly higher counts of microorganisms, yeasts and molds. Cucumbers had higher yeast and mold levels, while watermelon contained more bacteria.

The Science of Rot 

“Food deteriorates when there is microbial growth,” says study coauthor Jennifer Quinlan, PhD, a Drexel professor of nutrition and biology, whose study will be published in next month’s American Journal of Preventive Medicine

“Bacterial count is used to determine the quality of the produce, and it was poorer quality—closer to being spoiled,” she says. “Three of the things that had a higher bacteria count—strawberries, ready-to-go salad and fresh-cut watermelon—have been associated with foodborne illnesses.” 

Inferior produce discourages residents from adding fruits and vegetables to their diets, and smaller neighborhood stores may lack the infrastructure to handle produce safely, Dr. Quinlan notes. 

“The food may be of poorer quality to begin with,” she says. “Then, it may be transported to the stores and not be refrigerated properly. 

“Large supermarkets have entire units focused on food safety, refrigeration and sanitation, while a small facility with only one or two people may not have the resources.”

Basic Safety Steps 

Don’t buy fresh-cut produce unless it’s refrigerated at the point of sale. 

In addition, shoppers should thoroughly wash produce, advises Shelley Feist, executive director of the Partnership for Food Safety Education in Arlington, VA. 

“Whole fresh produce should be rinsed under running tap water just before eating, and produce should be kept separate from meat, poultry, raw eggs and fish to avoid cross-contamination,” she says. 

For Your Organic Bookshelf: Ordinary Poverty: A Little Food and Cold Storage