Each weekend, I have a routine of shopping around at my local grocery stores, trying to find the best prices for my go-to shopping list. Since I'm a big fan of avoiding takeout and at-home meal prep, lettuce and other salad greens are always on my list.
But in the last few months, I've noticed lettuce is harder to come by. Whether the store is out of my go-to type of greens or the prices have as much as doubled, that budget-friendly daily lunch salad is starting to be a lot more of a strain on my wallet.
Why is there a lettuce shortage?
If you've noticed that lettuce prices have skyrocketed recently, you're not alone. "Food prices fluctuate normally throughout the seasons or with inflation," says Nick Cutsumpas, an urban farmer and plant coach who designs exterior landscapes on Netflix's Instant Dream Home and wrote Plant Coach: The Beginner's Guide to Caring for Plants and the Planet, "but this specific surge in price is a reflection of the fragility of our food system."
It's not just a matter of supply and demand, but more a cause and effect situation that started with crops on the West Coast. "Much of the lettuce we consume here in the United States is grown in the warm climate areas of Central California," Cutsumpas tells Yahoo Life, "and alongside inflation and climate-related circumstances, starting in the fall of 2022, an insect-borne virus started spreading through fields of leafy greens."
It seems our favorite leafy greens have been suffering from their own sort of pandemic, and the results have been devastating. "The virus, impatiens necrotic spot virus or INSV, is carried by the thrips insect (a common houseplant pest) and because there is no cure for the disease, farmers in California lost as much as 80% of their entire lettuce crops," Cutsumpas adds.
With such devastating losses, the demand for an already limited supply led to skyrocketing costs. "Wholesale boxes of greens jumped to more than three times their usual value," Cutsumpas explains. "Grocery retailers needed to adjust their prices accordingly, and we the consumers ended up paying more. Although this is an acute incident, our agricultural woes may continue to worsen as climate change threatens farmers as well, and we must find other ways to decentralize our food system to reduce our food dependency."
Who has been impacted by the lettuce shortage?
There's an impact on everyone, from restaurants to home cooks. Restaurant owners are going through the same thing as the rest of us, but on a larger scale. They find themselves either unable to get lettuce or having the costs for the lettuce they need for their dishes explode, which can lead to the need to alter restaurant menus.
This may look like your favorite lunch spot raising the price of a salad or removing lettuce from certain sandwiches. "Obviously this also affects things like whether or not salads are available, so restaurants that are affected are warning customers that menu items may be prepared in different ways and toppings may be unavailable during this time," says DealNews.com consumer analyst Julie Ramhold.
"It's frightening that I might be paying over $100 for a case of lettuce when it used to be $30 a year ago," says Rob Wilson chef-owner of Glasspar in Dana Point, Calif. Wilson is seeing cost issues across the board: "It's never been higher," he says. "I can't stop serving menu staples like Caesar salads, but people will stop buying it if the price is too high."
In the past six months, Wilson says he's seen food costs increase by 5 to 6%. "While we do our best to utilize everything, like saving scraps to make vegetable stock, we're still left with food costs around 35 to 36%," he says.
The economic soft-landing is already causing margins to dwindle in the dining sector. "The effects are felt worldwide," Wilson explains. "It's why some of the world's best restaurants like Noma (a restaurant rated among the world's best) are closing. To paraphrase René Redzepi (Michelin-starred chef and co-owner at Noma) 'It's just not sustainable.'"
Sandwich chain Charleys Philly Steaks utilizes lettuce on all of its cheesesteaks and has experienced the scary impact of the lettuce shortage. Charleys' research and development manager Larry Geller shares that the company has been battling lettuce shortages since before Thanksgiving: They were originally unaffected by the shortages, but within 48 hours, they, too, were scrambling for a lettuce supply.
Charleys outsourced to other lettuce suppliers to get what was available, and franchisees were purchasing lettuce at retail grocery stores to meet demand. Now, its supply has been replenished, but the company is experiencing inflated costs due to demand. Lettuce is essential to Charleys' cheesesteaks, and Geller says there's no good alternative in this instance. "Because our core of ingredients is so essential, experiencing issues with one ingredient can turn into an issue," he says.
The home cook may find it's a lot harder to stick to eating healthier right now, especially if that means they, like me, lean hard into eating more salads. Because of this, many may be adjusting their grocery shopping routine, especially with the price of other groceries, like eggs, remaining high.
"They may be looking for alternatives or reevaluating their need for lettuce in general," says Ramhold. "However, it seems that overall the lettuce shortage is expected to be alleviated soon, so there's a good chance that consumers can jump back into eating all the salads in the next couple of months."
How to save on lettuce
One thing that's helped me personally, even as a solo home cook who lives alone and cooks only for myself, is to buy in bulk. After I was priced out of my usual three-pack of romaine hearts at my local grocery store, I ended up buying a six-pack at Costco, which was significantly more affordable.
Of course, you'll then need to have plans for, or the willpower to eat, that much lettuce. Still, shopping in bulk can definitely help you save money. "Right now a six-count package of romaine hearts at Costco will set you back roughly $5.24 depending on the area you're in," says Ramhold. "Meanwhile, other grocery stores may charge around $3.29 for a head of romaine lettuce and, if you opt for organic, it's going to be even more expensive."
Lettuce alternatives to consider
There are lettuce alternatives you can buy instead, but know that some aren't going to be equivalent.
If you tend to only like mixed greens, you may not want to try iceberg and vice versa, but if you are open to lettuce alternatives with other flavors, there's always the option to try kale or spinach as your salad base. And the bonus is these sturdier greens tend to have a longer shelf life, too.
You can always try to create certain salads from other veggies, mixing things like tomatoes and cucumbers with a light vinaigrette. We tend to think that lettuce is a must for salads, but that's not a hard and fast rule. Think of options such as Israeli salad, which never uses lettuce at all, or even a fun black bean and corn salad.
Certain grains make a good base for salads while helping stretch our lettuce supply by using less of it, or even not using it at all. Consider options such as couscous, quinoa and freekeh, remembering all the times you've order those poke or shawarma bowls at local lunch spots. They are often presented with the option of greens or grains as a base, and it may be time to switch it up with our own salads.
Should you try growing your own lettuce?
You can always use this time as an excuse to grow your own lettuce at home.
Long ago, I learned the way to cope with the cost of fresh herbs was to grow my own. It's time to give that same consideration to our lettuce supply. "This is why it is so important to learn how to grow your own food," says Cutsumpas, who also serves as ambassador to home growing company Lettuce Grow. "Whether it is a tray of microgreens on your windowsill, a Lettuce Grow Farmstand in your kitchen or a raised bed garden in your backyard, there are so many ways to grow."
Many of the herbs and leafy greens we love do not take long to grow: Most can reach harvesting maturity within just 30 to 45 days. "With a bit of planning and an effective succession planting schedule (planting new seedlings before harvesting the mature plants) you can have beautiful homegrown salads almost all year round," says Cutsumpas.
Cutsumpas points out that, no matter how you choose to grow, the current lettuce shortage is a scary reminder that perhaps we shouldn't rely solely on our agricultural systems to keep us fed. "Many of these insect-borne or climate-related issues will continue to threaten our food supply," he says, "and the more we can empower ourselves with the gift of growing our own food, the better."
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