How A Severe Lettuce Shortage Is Plaguing Supermarkets And Restaurants

A lettuce shortage is impacting grocery chains and restaurants alike, causing a spike in price for the leafy green.

By Kari Apted | Published

We’ve all grown accustomed to seeing signs about product shortages and supply chain issues when we walk inside our favorite supermarkets and restaurants. Now, even though many of the pandemic-related shortages are over, there’s a new scarcity that will affect healthy eaters across the nation. It’s getting harder than ever to find affordable leafy greens as a severe lettuce shortage impacts salad bars and home cooks alike.

Fast food restaurants Taco Bell and Chick-fil-A are already warning customers about the impending lettuce shortage. Both chains are delivering the messages via their apps, saying that some menu items may be prepared differently or temporarily unavailable. Panera and Subway have also confirmed they’re working to minimize the industrywide shortage, but Chipotle said they were not experiencing any problems yet.

A Taco Bell spokesperson told Business Insider that the company’s disclaimer is somewhat of a pre-warning posted “out of an abundance of caution.” As of November 10, the restaurants were still receiving their scheduled lettuce shipments. The spokesperson said they were working with suppliers to keep the lettuce shortage’s impact as minimal as possible.

The lettuce shortage mainly affects romaine and iceberg, two of the most popular lettuce varieties. It’s the result of demand exceeding the current supply of these leafy greens. And as Economics 101 taught us, this results in high prices, which some restaurants are seeking to recoup by issuing a surcharge on salad bowls and other lettuce-heavy menu items.

Industry news website Restaurant Business Online said that at the end of October 2022, the price of a box of iceberg lettuce was $67. That represents a nearly 400%  price increase over three years, as the box of iceberg cost $14 during the same period in 2019. Romaine lettuce also experienced a dramatic hike in price, with 2019’s $22.75 box jumping to $63 in 2022.

Growing lettuce was deprioritized for farmers during the COVID-19 pandemic as they used the land previously dedicated to lettuce to grow other crops. Other reasons for the lettuce shortage include unusually high temperatures in central California that damaged many crops before they could be harvested. Diseases such as Impatiens Necrotic Orthotospovirus also reduced the amount of available lettuce because infected plants cannot mature.

Hope is on the horizon, however. The central California growing season is drawing to a close, and soon most lettuce production will shift to southern California and Arizona. These areas have not been impacted by plant diseases as harshly as central California and growers are hopeful that this seasonal transition will bring an end to the lettuce shortage of 2022.

Meanwhile, consumers can continue to enjoy the taste and health benefits of lettuce by switching to other leafy greens, such as cabbage, spinach, watercress, or arugula. Although it’s not technically a lettuce plant, endive can be substituted for romaine hearts as its cup-like shape is a perfect container for various fillings. Endive, arugula, and some other lettuce substitutions may have a slightly bitter flavor compared to the neutral green taste of iceberg and romaine.