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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, March 29, 2002

National lettuce shortage triples price to $3 a head

By John Duchemin
Advertiser Staff Writer

Call it the Great Lettuce Shortage of 2002.

A Mainland freeze proved too cold even for the iceberg variety of lettuce, driving its price high enough to merit apologies to shoppers looking for that old 99-cent special.

Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

Across Hawai'i, the humblest of vegetables is being priced like a Sotheby's auction item. For one head of iceberg, a shopper at Foodland, Safeway, Star or Times must fork over about $3.

Normally it's 99 cents on sale. Even local Manoa lettuce, usually a gourmet choice, can be found cheaper.

O'ahu produce wholesalers are charging almost $70 for a 50-pound case of head lettuce — about triple the usual price.

"Seventy bucks for a case of lettuce? That's ridiculous. That's crazy," said Dane Ishikawa, operations manager for Fred's Produce, a Hawai'i wholesaler. Normally, Fred's sells lettuce to its hotel, restaurant and supermarket clients for around $20 a case.

Why is one case of this mild-mannered vegetable suddenly more expensive than, say, two tanks of gas for a medium-sized SUV?

Blame it on the weather.

A freak freeze in the Southwest has creamed the California and Arizona lettuce crops during the winter, pushing up prices and leaving stores, restaurants and cafeterias nationwide scrambling to cope.

Janet Lee, manager of Sizzler in Kalihi, said her restaurant has tried to avoid using iceberg — offering more Romaine or other varieties — and even resorted to plastic bags of pre-cut lettuce, which, oddly, are now cheaper than a head of the same lettuce.

The University of Hawai'i cafeteria system is trying to sub in more zucchini and other veggies at salad bars, said Susan Fukushima, operations director of UH cafeteria contractor Sodexho.

But sometimes, substitutes just won't cut it.

"If you are offering a Caesar salad with Romaine lettuce, you can't make it with cabbage," Fukushima said. "In that case, we just have to deal with it."