California And Arizona Could Help End The Lettuce Shortage

Lettuce is a seriously unsung hero of the vegetable world. Yes, it's the most common component of a salad, but it also brings clean crispiness to a burger or homemade BLT, adds crunch to your burrito, and more. But people may find they're appreciating humble lettuce a little more these days. After all, absence always does make the heart grow fonder.

For the past month or so, restaurants like Taco Bell and Chick-fil-A have been warning customers about the possible absence of lettuce from menu items (per Insider). Both chains rely heavily on the crunchy, leafy green to brighten tacos, Crunchwraps, and chicken sandwiches. The current shortage of iceberg and romaine lettuce has extended past the grocery store. According to Restaurant Business Online, there's been close to a 400% increase in the price of lettuce between now and right before the pandemic. The average price of a box (or food service-sized quantity) of iceberg lettuce in 2019 was $14. Now, it's $67. At those prices, restaurants that use a lot of the leafy green, like Taco Bell and Chick-fil-A, simply can't afford to pay those prices without charging customers more. And that's opening a whole other can of worms.

How did we get here and what's next for lettuce?

Thankfully, it seems like lettuce-dependent restaurants won't have to decide whether or not to raise prices because hope is in sight. The recent lettuce shortage happened from a combination of a few key factors. Significantly, early pandemic shortages drove farmers to shift away from lettuce and reduce the area devoted to growing the crop (per Restaurant Business Online). That set up the dominoes for the next set of problems to really get out of control. California's lettuce-growing Salinas Valley was hit with the impatiens necrotic spot virus (per AgAlert). This insect-borne virus wiped out as much as 80% of some farmers' crops. "Unseasonably high temperatures" also contributed to these massive crop losses, according to Growing Produce.

But hope is on the horizon for lettuce lovers. Restaurant Business notes that as lettuce crops from less disease-hit regions likeĀ Arizona and Southern California that were sheltered from the unseasonable heat mature, we may see romaine and iceberg lettuce reaching more normative prices once again. These crops may come to the rescue later this month or sometime in January, reducing the shortage. In the meantime, maybe skip the caesar salad recipe.