$11 for a head of California lettuce? Here’s Why The “Outrageous” Price Shortage
Now don’t look – the price of lettuce is skyrocketing across the Bay Area.
It’s $5.99 for a head of romaine at Country Sun Natural Foods in Palo Alto. Almost $10 for baby lettuce at Draeger’s Market in Los Altos. And a whopping $10.99 for an iceberg at Piedmont Grocery in Oakland.
Nationally, the average cost of a Romanian head is currently just $2.50, according to federal data. But that’s still a jump of 47% from October. Product prices can vary widely across regions and even individual stores due to a combination of factors, including local seasonal growth trends and the contracts that grocers can negotiate with farmers and suppliers.
The reason for the rise? It’s not just inflation and supply chain problems.
Crop diseases are ravaging lettuce fields in the Salinas Valley – the “salad pot of the world” – causing shortages across the country. And while farmers and researchers desperately search for a cure for the insect infestation virus, shoppers, grocers, and restaurant owners are left to face sticker shock.
“Seven dollars for a head of lettuce—iceberg lettuce, not fancy lettuce?” Candice Schwab said in disbelief as she pushed her shopping cart down the produce aisle at the upscale Dräger store. “It is outrageous.”
Gourmet grocery shoppers aren’t the only ones feeling the pinch.
Last month, Taco Bell and Chick-fil-A warned customers that they would not be able to prepare some orders due to a shortage. Panera and Chipotle also said they were affected.
The shortage means he now sells Roman and Iceberg heads at the same price of $5 he buys them for, said Abdul Aounallah, production manager at Real Produce International Market in Palo Alto. Around Thanksgiving, supply is pretty low, as the family-owned market struggles to keep lettuce in stock.
“We’re able to provide all of that (now) — the price is just insane,” Awnallah said, adding that he didn’t want to burden shoppers with much higher costs for a basic product.
Deals can still be found. At Sprouts Farmers Market on Prospect Road in San Jose, for example, the tip of an iceberg goes for just $2.29. The price was about the same as at Whole Foods in Palo Alto.
Chi Dixon, director of marketing communications for the popular organic market, said Berkeley Bowl, which buys from various local farms, also manages to keep prices low, for the most part. But the costs are still unforeseen.
“We’re seeing anywhere from $2.89 to over $6 a head for the same head, but from two different producers,” Dixon said.
Sanad El Souk, owner of Good Salad restaurant in Santa Clara, said the cost of lettuce has tripled for his business. Romaine used to account for 8% of the cost of salad in a restaurant. now 21%. But the market said it does not plan to increase prices for customers, and is instead looking for discounts from its suppliers.
“Not only is it the largest component of the cost of salad, it is our highest component in terms of the quantity we buy,” he said.
For the farmers of the Salinas Valley—who grow more than half of the country’s lettuce, which totals more than $1 billion annually—higher prices don’t translate into more revenue.
Many have seen their fields completely destroyed by the virus this year, said Norm Groot, executive director of the Monterey County Farm Bureau. The disease came at a time when the local agricultural economy was already suffering from inflation, supply chain disruptions and labor shortages.
“It all adds up and really affects the bottom line quite harshly,” Grote said.
The virus — known as impatiens necrotic spot virus, or INSV — is spread by tiny, millimeter-long insects called thrips. Chemical sprays have had only limited success in killing insects, according to the researchers. In no case can pesticides be used on organic crops.
INSV has been known since about 2006 and may have originated from flowering plants in greenhouses, said Richard Smith, a vegetable researcher at the University of California, Monterey County Cooperative Extension.
Smith said the reason it’s hitting the Salinas Valley now is largely because the area is already dealing with another crop disease called Pythium wilt, which is caused by a fungus-like pathogen. Double outbreaks peaked this fall after spreading rapidly for much of the growing season, which ended recently.
Extreme heat spells in recent years may also have exacerbated the impact of the virus by increasing thrip numbers and stressing lettuce vines.
“You have to kind of wonder, is global warming playing a role in this?” Smith said.
Relief may be on the way for shoppers, at least. With winter approaching, most California lettuce harvests happen in the southern part of the state, where the virus is least prevalent.
Smith said researchers are now studying the biology of tripe and are working to develop lettuce varieties that are more resistant to the virus. If they don’t find a solution soon, he fears lettuce farmers will start looking elsewhere to grow their crops, which could have dire consequences for the economy of Monterey County.
“Salinas is a perfect place to grow lettuce,” said Smith. “This disease changes that statement dramatically.”
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