Prices for winter produce have more than doubled in Southland supermarkets since a Christmas cold snap in Florida and Texas drove temperatures below freezing and destroyed an estimated 80% of the nation's winter vegetable crop.
Tomato prices took the biggest jolt, retailers and growers said. A pound of large tomatoes generally sells for about 98 cents during the winter months; the posted price at one Vons market in Culver City was $2.69 on Tuesday morning.
"It's a very big shock for consumers," said Vickie Sanders, spokeswoman for Vons Cos. Inc. "People are commenting, but they're still buying. This is the land of sunshine and fresh produce. We think it's our right as Southern Californians to have quality produce all year round."
That perception may undergo a change this winter, as supplies dwindle and consumers try to figure skyrocketing prices into their food budgets. Relief from high prices is at least six weeks away. Florida and Texas must replant, and California farmers will not begin their major harvest until March.
In addition to tomatoes, crops hardest hit by the cold include cucumbers, bell peppers, asparagus, eggplant and green beans. At Hughes Markets, green beans are $1.69 per pound, a steep jump from their normal 79 cents to 89 cents a pound, said Roger Schroeder, director of produce. A pound of bell peppers, which typically costs less than a dollar, is selling for $1.59. Large tomatoes are $2.49 per pound.
"The big problem was the freeze in Florida," Larry Cox, vice president for produce marketing at Lucky Stores, said Tuesday. "But we had very cold, wet weather in Mexico, which usually takes care of winter vegetables on this side of the Mississippi. Mexico does not have enough . . . to take care of the whole U.S."
Officials of Lucky markets began posting apologetic notes in their produce departments Tuesday morning, explaining to shoppers the cause of the higher prices. Ralphs posted similar signs last week. The most detailed signs blossomed over the weekend at markets owned by Quality Foods International.
"Cold weather has pushed produce prices up," explained the hastily printed signs at the Marina Market, a Quality Foods outlet in Marina del Rey. "Spinach prices doubled in Texas' Winter Garden, source of 80% of the United States' winter fresh-market supplies. Tomato prices doubled in Florida, the main supplier of winter tomatoes until Mexican imports arrive."
On Dec. 23 and 24, temperatures plunged into the low 20s and upper teens in the vegetable fields of Florida and Texas and stayed below freezing for several hours, causing produce to freeze and leaves to shrivel. State agriculture officials estimate that up to 80% of the winter vegetables in both states was lost.
"The state of Florida is virtually shut down," said John Gargiulo, a vice president at Naples Tomato Growers, a company that supplies 10% of the tomatoes grown in the United States. "We lost about 1,000 acres of green tomatoes, about $5 million worth."
When Gargiulo walked through his company's fields on the morning of Dec. 24, the tomato plants were brown and drooping, and the mature green tomatoes were covered with yellow splotches from the freezing.
Naples also owns a small tomato operation in Puerto Rico, which did not freeze over. Gargiulo said the tomatoes harvested there are selling for $30 per 25-pound box, nearly quadruple the $7 to $10 his harvest usually brings.
"This is what happens when it freezes," he said. "And you can expect high prices until March."