Why Your Salad Will Cost More
It turns out the deep freeze which hit the West may not have done much damage to California's $2 billion fresh citrus crop. Instead, the damage may have already been done to the nation's "salad bowl." Prices are rising.
"The price has more than doubled on our spinach," said Madelyn Alfano, who runs a chain of restaurants in Los Angeles called Maria's Italian Kitchen. "We're not selling asparagus. It's like $75 a case, that's more than $6 a pound, so that's off our menu completely."
Nearly all of the fresh lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, artichokes and other winter vegetables grown in the U.S. come from Southern California and Arizona, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture said prices have jumped considerably.
(Read More: Bitter Cold Grips California, Damaging Citrus Crops.)
Romaine lettuce prices have nearly tripled in a year to as much as $32 for a carton of 24 heads of lettuce. Broccoli prices are up 288 percent to $33 a carton, and spinach prices are up 150 percent to as much as $25 a carton.
"This has been a pretty tough situation," said Jeff Percy, VP of Production for Ocean Mist Farms in Coachella, California.
He oversees the production of all of the vegetables seeing price increases. "Our business is like Wall Street...supply and demand, so obviously we have some short supplies."
(Read More: Agricultural Commodity Prices.)
Percy said the cold snap followed the warmest December he's ever seen, and that heat created such a quick bumper crop that many vegetables were left unpicked in the field due to falling prices. "I've been a farmer for 25 years, and I've never seen the perfect storm of weather that I've seen this year."
According to Percy, there could be "critical" shortages of some vegetables over the next month before the situation returns to normal, and what product does make it to grocery stores won't look as perfect as Americans are used to.
He held up an artichoke which carried a label saying "frost kissed". It's outer skin was brown and starting to peel, like a sunburn. "It may look funny on the outside," the farmer said, "but it's still good on the inside."
(Read More: Drought Still Plagues US: Food Prices 'Going Up'.)
Madelyn Alfano said the produce she's receiving is smaller, as outer leaves damaged by the frost have been removed. Her chopped salad is her best-selling item, but since her menus are already printed, she can't easily raise prices. It's easier to just remove ingredients. "Spinach is going to be on the menu for another week. So come in and get it while you can."
The farmers who grow these perishable fresh vegetables can't get crop insurance, so how does Percy hope to get through this?
"It's kind of ironic," he said holding a couple artichokes, which now are 8 percent more expensive than they were a month ago. "When we have a full supply of product and perfect quality, we usually don't make a whole lot of profit. So when we do have problems like this, unfortunately for the consumer, that's sometimes when the farmer makes his money."
—By CNBC's Jane Wells; Follow her on Twitter: @janewells