Dining halls to end tomato rationing

Restaurateurs and sandwich aficionados can rest easy as the worst stage of a two-month national tomato shortage has passed. Attributed to unexpected and severe weather conditions that damaged tomato crops, the national shortage prompted UCSD dining halls and other food businesses to serve the fruit only upon request or eliminate it from menus altogether.

Florida and California, which constitute the top two fresh tomato-producing states in the nation, both suffered unusually harsh weather conditions this fall, which resulted in high prices.

In Florida, the state that produces virtually all of the fresh-market, field-grown tomatoes in the country during the winter, hurricanes damaged 65 percent of the state’s usual crop, according to the Florida Tomato Committee.

A severe storm hitting central California on Oct. 19 and Oct. 20 also damaged a portion of the state’s fall tomato crop and temporarily suspended harvest. Just one week later, a second storm descended on central and southern portions of the state, affecting nearly all of the remaining tomato yield.

Signs stating that tomatoes would not be served unless requested appeared in some dining hall windows.

California’s tomatoes come primarily from Baja California in the summer, and from other parts of Mexico during the winter. However, there is often a six-week gap between the two crop cycles that Florida typically covers. Because Florida’s crop was destroyed by various storms, tomato prices increased and UCSD chose to forego buying its usual quantities, according to Housing and Dining Services Associate Director Brian Klippel.

“Florida is usually the interim producer, but their entire first crop was ruined,” Klippel said. “We had to wait for the second crops to come in [before we could start serving normal quantities].”

Because tomatoes are fundamental to so many dishes prepared in the dining halls, Klippel said dining facilities could not eliminate them altogether in order to save money. While certain types of produce can be replaced, tomatoes had no alternative.

“This happens with other produce as well, such as melons. The cost is offset because there’s other food you can choose from,” Klippel said. “However, there is no alternative for tomatoes. We couldn’t completely eliminate them because they are essential to so many things. You can’t have lasagna or a BLT without tomatoes.”

He estimated that Housing and Dining Services normally pays anywhere from $10 to $12 per case of tomatoes, with prices always slightly higher in the winter. Dining facilities currently pay around $15 to $18 per case; by contrast, during the peak in November, the produce costed more than $60 per case.

“There were three things we could have done,” Klippel said. “First, we could have simply taken the tomatoes off the market. Second, we could raise prices. Or third, we could try a combination [of buying fewer tomatoes and not offering as many], which is what we did.”

Klippel said students and customers have been very supportive during the shortage, and that he has gotten no word of any complaints.

“We generally try to keep customers informed and ask for support,” Klippel said. “Many students said they could live without [tomatoes]. Those who wanted them got them, while those who could go without did so. We never want to raise prices if we don’t have to.”

Students who were aware of the shortage said they understood the situation.

“I had no problem acquiring tomatoes during the shortage. I got them when I wanted them,” said Revelle junior David Parkinson. “I didn’t think it was that widespread because I didn’t see the effects.”

Revelle junior Gillian Siddall said she was also aware of the change in policy.

“I was a bit bemused because I didn’t see the tomato shortage signs in all the dining halls on campus; I only saw them in Café Ventanas,” Siddall said.

The highest prices and greatest shortage came in December, when school was out of session, Klippel said. After school resumed, tomato prices fell significantly as a result of stronger tomato shipments from Florida and Mexico.

“We did not break even by reducing the amount we bought, but it wasn’t as bad as it could have been,” Klippel said.

Fresh-tomato wholesale prices averaged 99 cents per pound in November, 225 percent above prices for the same period a year earlier, and the highest level since January 1990, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.