Food shoppers in the Washington area, as elsewhere, are paying dearly for the January freeze that destroyed and damaged much of the southern fruit and vegetable crop.
Prices have jumped nearly 70 percent for some items, such as grapefruit and green peppers, at local supermarkets and some produce is in short supply. Some stores have no fresh corn available. And the quality of some fresh fruits and vegetables is clearly less than it has been.
"Mostly, it is the size," said Safeway representative Ernest Moore. "The heads of lettuce, for instance, are generally good quality but they are smaller than usual."
Area retailers, who are generally reluctant to discuss price trends, acknowledge privately that prices could go even higher next week. But they say they expect prices to stabilize and perhaps even decline in late February as Florida citrus shipments return to normal and Florida's new vegetable crops become available.
"They replanted right after the freeze, and it is growing right now," said Jerry Purdy, director of produce for Giant Food. "The new crop should start coming in within the month."
Meanwhile, stores and their customers "have to pay through the nose," Purdy said. Here are examples of prices shoppers can expect this weekend at many area supermarkets:
* Grapefruit, which were selling for 30 cents each before the freeze, now are 50 cents each, an increase of 68 percent.
* Green peppers, which were 30 cents each, now are 50 cents each, up 68 percent.
* Squash, which was 99 cents a pound or less, now is $1.39 a pound, up 40 percent.
* Juice oranges, which were 20 cents each, now are 25 cents, up 25 percent.
* Green beans, which were $1.29 a pound before, now are $1.59 a pound, up 23 percent.
The higher store prices, according to Moore, reflect higher wholesale costs for fresh fruits and vegetables and additional transportation costs. "We have had to bring in citrus and greens from California and other places, instead of Florida, and that obviously increases the freight charge," Moore said.
Washington area food stores typically obtain the bulk of their fresh fruits and vegetables from Florida suppliers at this time of year. But when the freeze struck the Sunshine State Jan. 20 and 21, agriculture officials embargoed citrus shipments to prevent damaged fruits from leaving the state. Many of the vegetables simply were wiped out by the freeze.
Wholesale prices shot up immediately for supplies available elsewhere, Moore said, and "that means retail price increases."
Giant brought fresh cucumbers from Jamaica and green peppers from Mexico. Safeway brought green beans, grapefruit and oranges from California. Local stores brought spinach, collard greens and kale from Texas.
At the Jessup wholesale produce center, which handles about half of the fresh fruits and vegetables consumed by the Washington area, prices "jumped up right after the freeze," according to Richard Hollinger, who collects price information from Jessup sales activities for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Hollinger said that "good spinach from Texas now is bringing $15 a bushel wholesale, compared to $8 or $9 a bushel before the freeze." He described the quality of the spinach as "variable -- the better stuff is coming out of the lower Texas valley."
Tomato prices also have been increased, he said. "They were $10 to $11 before for a 25-pound carton wholesale, but now they are up to $13 to $14 a carton."
Hollinger said that green peppers "are out of sight -- what was $12 last week for a carton of 60 or 70 peppers is $16 this week." And broccoli and cauliflower, he said, have increased from $5 to $6 for a carton of 12 heads to $8 to $10 for a carton.
Retailers said that they expect to start receiving shipments from Florida within a few days.
"We should start getting some Florida oranges by the middle of next week," Purdy said. But stores expect to continue bringing in vegetables from California, Texas and other areas, he said, until the new Florida crops are ready later this month.
Is there any good news for shoppers?
"Potatoes haven't been affected; you can still get a five-pound bag for $1.29," Purdy said. "Lettuce is reasonably cheap. We have been some selling two heads for $1, which is not too bad for this time of year. And tomato prices could drop next week, but I can't promise."