It’s no secret that groceries (and nearly everything else) have gotten more expensive lately. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics’ November report shows that prices for food are up 10.6% from this time last year. One item that’s seen a staggeringly outsized price hike is lettuce.
USDA reports show that some shipments of California-grown romaine hearts sell for nearly three times the price compared to a year ago. But, more than inflation, the story behind lettuce’s high prices starts on the farm.
The problems started last fall in California’s Salinas Valley, often referred to as “the salad bowl,” when an insect-borne virus destroyed acres of lettuce crops. The area, which supplies nearly half of the US lettuce supply, was ravaged by impatiens necrotic spot virus (INSV), a disease carried by small insects called thrips. There is no known cure for INSV, and it can infect a lot of different plant species, making it incredibly difficult to control. According to reporting by the California Farm Bureau Federation, lettuce growers in the Salinas Valley estimated a yield loss of more than 80% of their crop this year.
A produce supplier told NPR that a wholesale box of romaine, which would normally cost around $30, is now being sold for nearly $100. These price increases are then passed on to consumers. On FreshDirect and Instacart, two online grocery delivery services, a package of three romaine hearts is selling for $9.99 and $5.99 respectively in the New York City area.
But not every salad needs (or, honestly, even wants) lettuce. Here are four dynamic, deeply flavorful alternatives to turn to instead.
Kale is significantly cheaper than romaine right now, according to the USDA—plus its curvy, textured leaves are perfect for catching creamy dressings like Caesar. Lemony breadcrumbs give each bite of this salad a big, bright crunch.
With garlicky oil and a squeeze of fresh lime, this cucumber salad gets along with many meals. Feel free to swap out the feta for another milky cheese, like fresh goat, or even a creamy bean, like cannellini.
Chicories add a light bitterness to play off a honeyed vinaigrette, while eggs and bacon add substance. This salad can be much more than a side dish, especially if you team it up with some warm bread.
Even cheaper if you buy them in bulk, grains are a filling starting point. Freekeh ensures this salad is robust, while pomegranate molasses and lemon juice create a lively, tangy dressing with just the right amount of bite.