Washington area consumers are playing an average of 20 to 25 percent more for many fresh vegetables and citrus this week because of the freeze that struck Florida in mid-January.
Green beans, squash and tomatoes have nearly doubled in price at some stores. Temple oranges have climbed 25 percent, and large grapefruit 15 percent. Some types of lettuce, such as romaine and chicory, registered increases of 10 percent.
Besides the sharply higher prices, shoppers have found reduced supplies of some fresh produce items. Some Giant and Safeway supermarkets, for example, had no summer squash yesterday. And officials indicated that their seasonal supply of tangelos and tangerines could run out a week earlier than usual.
The quality of some of the vegetables that survived the freeze also has suffered. Richard S. Hallinger, a regional produce specialist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said that the small amount of yellow summer squash that has reached the Washington area market is in poor condition. And one store produce buyer described green beans as mediocre.
Actual price increases made since the freeze ranged from store to store and from product to product. Sue Portney, a representative for Giant, the area's largest supermarket chain, said its citrus and vegetable price increases have increased about 25 percent. She said it is too early to predict whether there will be any more increases.
Here are examples of retail price increases made since the freeze:
Green beans: 99 cents a pound yesterday at Magruder's, compared with 50 cents a pound before. The Safeway and Giant price yesterday was 98 cents a pound, compared with 89 cents a pound before.
Summer squash: 79 cents a pound yesterday at Magruder's, compared with 49 cents a pound before.Safeway's price yesterday was 98 cents a pound, compared with 89 cents a pound before.
Tomatoes: 79 cents a pound at Magruder's, compared with 49 cents a pound before. Yesterday's price was 98 cents a pound at Safeway and Giant, compared with 69 cents a pound before at Safeway and 79 cents a pound at Giant.
Lettuce: 98 cents a pound yesterday for romaine and chicory yesterday at Safeway, compared with 89 cents before the freeze.
Grapefruit: 45 cents each large grapefruit yesterday at Safeway; 39 cents before.
Produce prices tend to fluctuate seasonally, depending on the supply. So when freezing temperatures left icycles on Florida's oranges and frost on its vegetable crops, it led to a burst of frenzied trading among wholesalers confronted with higher grower prices and a shrunken supply of merchandise.
"The freeze dried up the market [supply]," said Stanford Steppa, produce buyer for Magruder's. "So even though it is near the tail end of tangerine season, absolutely none are available.And any coming in are leftovers."
Steppa said that squash, green beans and tomatoes -- along with citrus -- had been hit particularly hard by the price increases.
"Normally, squash this time of year is inexpensive. Normally, Mexico and Florida fight over which will be cheaper and which will sell more. Now Mexico has all the market and it is sky high."
The wholesale price for green beans, he said, is $25 for a 27-pound box -- nearly $1 a pound. "We were lucky to get beans at all and they are of mediocre quality," Steppa said.
Tomatoes, however, are "magnificent," he said, "and very, very, expensive."
Larry Johnson, a representative of Safeway, said that the resumption of citrus shipments from Florida this week will enable his chain to reduce prices for some products soon. He said, for example, that the company plans to feature Temple oranges in its weekend specials for 10 for $1. Since the freeze, those oranges have been selling for 8 for $1.
The Florida freeze is not the only weather problem to strike produce.
Because of last summer's drought, potato prices have increased 29 percent at some Washington area stores in recent weeks. A five-pound bag now costs $1.79 at Safeway, compared with $1.39 earlier in the month.