$11 for a head for California lettuce? Shortage causes “outrageous” prices

Don’t look now — the price of lettuce is soaring across the Bay Area.

It’s $5.99 for a head of romaine at Country Sun Natural Foods in Palo Alto. Nearly $10 for little gem lettuce at Draeger’s Market in Los Altos. And a whopping $10.99 for iceberg at Piedmont Grocery in Oakland.

Nationwide, the average cost of a head of romaine is currently just $2.50, according to federal data. But that’s still a 47% jump from October. Produce prices can vary widely across regions and even individual stores due to a range of factors, including local seasonal growing trends and the contracts grocers can negotiate with farmers and suppliers.

The reason for the spike? It’s not just inflation and supply-chain problems.

Crop disease is ravaging lettuce fields in Salinas Valley — the “Salad Bowl of the World” — causing a shortage across the country. And as farmers and researchers desperately search for a remedy for the insect-spread virus, shoppers, grocers and restaurant owners are left to face the sticker shock.

“Seven dollars for a head of lettuce — iceberg lettuce, not the fancy stuff?” said Candice Schwab in disbelief as she pushed her shopping cart down the produce aisle at the high-end Draeger’s. “It’s outrageous.”

Lorberto Macias, of San Jose, a produce manager at Zanotto’s Family Market, arranges lettuce at the market in San Jose, Calif., on Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2022. (Shae Hammond/Bay Area News Group)

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 the shortage. Panera and Chipotle also said they were impacted.

Abdul Awnallah, produce manager at the Real Produce International Market in Palo Alto, said the shortage means he’s now selling heads of romaine and iceberg for essentially the same $5 price at which he buys them. Around Thanksgiving, supply got so low the family-owned market struggled to keep lettuce in stock.

“We’re able to supply all of it (now) — it’s just the price is insane,” Awnallah said, adding he doesn’t want to burden shoppers with significantly higher costs for a produce staple.

Deals can still be found. At Sprouts Farmers Market on Prospect Road in San Jose, for instance, a head of iceberg is going for just $2.29. The price was roughly the same at Whole Foods in Palo Alto.

Berkeley Bowl, which buys from various local farms, has also been able to keep prices low, for the most part, said Chi Dixon, marketing communication manager with the renowned organic market. But costs are still unpredictable.

Lettuce is stacked on a table at the farmers market at Princeton Plaza Mall in San Jose, Calif., on Wednesday, Dec.  14, 2022. (Shae Hammond/Bay Area News Group)
Lettuce is stacked on a table at the farmers market at Princeton Plaza Mall in San Jose, Calif., on Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2022. (Shae Hammond/Bay Area News Group)

“We’re seeing between $2.89 to over $6 a head for the same head, but from different producers,” Dixon said.

Sanad Al Souz, owner of The 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 a salad at the restaurant. Now it’s 21%. But Al Souz said he doesn’t plan to increase prices for customers, instead looking for discounts from his suppliers.

“Not only does it make up the biggest component of the cost of the salad, it is our highest ingredient in terms of how much we purchase,” he said.

For Salinas Valley farmers — who grow more than half the nation’s lettuce, totaling over $1 billion a year in value — the higher prices aren’t translating into more revenue.

Many have seen their fields entirely decimated by the virus this year, according to Norm Groot, executive director of the Monterey County Farm Bureau. The disease came as the local agricultural economy was already grappling with inflation, supply-chain disruptions and labor shortages.

“It all adds up and really impacts the bottom line very harshly,” Groot said.

The virus — known as impatiens necrotic spot virus, or INSV — is spread by tiny millimeter-long insects called thrips. Chemical sprays have only limited success killing the bugs, according to researchers. And pesticides can’t be used on organic crops in any case.

Richard Smith, a vegetable researcher with the University of California Cooperative Extension in Monterey County, said INSV has been known since around 2006 and may have originated with flowering plants in greenhouses.

The reason it’s pummeling the Salinas Valley now, Smith said, is in large part because the region is already dealing with another crop disease called Pythium wilt, caused by fungi-like pathogens. The dual outbreaks came to a head this fall after spreading rapidly for most of the growing season, which just recently ended.

Severe heat spells in recent years may also have exacerbated the impact of the virus by boosting the thrip population and stressing lettuce vines.

“You kind of have to wonder, is global warming playing a role in this?” Smith said.

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