A triple blow from Mother Nature has really put the squeeze on tomato-lovers this year, but customers seeing red over the prices shouldn't blame the grocery stores.
Hurricanes in Florida, floods in California and a pest problem in Mexico have hurt three major suppliers, causing prices to reach their highest level in nearly nine years, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Arlene Usry checks over the quality of tomatoes at the Thomson Bi Lo store.
Photo by Jerrie MacIntire
This time of year, Florida supplies most tomatoes destined for McDuffie County, but the crop was affected by the hurricane season there. Suppliers in other areas have also been hard hit by problems which have kept the supply low and pushed the price up to between $3 and $4 per pound, said Scott Adler, produce manager at Bi-Lo.
About six months of the year, Thomson's Bi-Lo can get tomatoes from Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Tennessee, but in December Florida has traditionally supplied the tomatoes destined for McDuffie County.
Although tomatoes have increased in price the past month by about $1.70 per pound, consumers can still find what they want.
"The quality is still there," said Mr. Adler.
Grocery stores aren't the only ones feeling the pinch. Restaurants are paying more for their supplies, said Rusty Hamilton, director of operations for McDonald's in Thomson.
"Our costs have been four times what they normally are," he said, adding that the menu prices haven't changed even though the store is paying more for supplies.
Some establishments are dealing with the problem by cutting back on tomatoes whenever possible. The Thomson Wendy's restaurant is following the corporation's trend by temporarily forgoing tomatoes on sandwiches except upon request, although tomatoes are still included in salads. A sign explaining the tomato shortage hung above the Wendy's cash register last week.
Similar signs are going up in other restaurants, according to national news reports.
Thomson's Subway wants to keep tomatoes on its menu as long as possible.
"We're going to continue serving tomatoes if the cost stays where it is now and doesn't go up," said Manager Celeste Dent.
The cost of tomatoes even caught the attention of the school board when members were discussing adding fruits and vegetables to menus at the regular board meeting last week.
Officials say some relief may be in sight: last week, news agencies reported prices would likely drop as growers began shipping more tomatoes from Florida and Mexico.