Thursday, January 29, 2009

Milton Transit: Change is Coming!

I grew up in Toronto, which probably has the best transit system in the country. No matter where you are in Toronto, you are rarely more than a few blocks away from a bus, streetcar or subway stop. More importantly, even if you are unfamiliar with the specific TTC routes, you can generally find your way to where you're going because the routes are all on a grid system. So if you know you want to go southwest, you just get on a westbound bus and then onto a southbound.

It doesn't quite work that way in Milton.

Back when we had one car and my husband was commuting to Toronto, I got myself a short-lived job doing layout for a graphics company up on Steeles Avenue. It was too far to walk, so I used to take the bus. Back then they only ran once every hour, but I was fortunate in that there was a bus stop right across the street from me, and that bus went straight up Commercial and Martin Streets to Steeles and then back again.

Today, getting to that same location would involve a 15 minute walk, two different buses and a rather extensive scenic tour of Milton.

The current Milton Transit system is a classic case of "you can't get there from here" - unless, of course, "here" is one of the new housing developments and "there" is the GO Station. If, on the other hand, you live in 'olde Milton'* and want to get to the Wal-Mart or the movie theatre or the grocery store, you're better off taking a cab. And you really, really don't want to take a cab in this town.

Happily, a Strategic Plan Study has been underway for some time now, and proposals are now being made for an overhaul of Milton' beleaguered transit system. As reported in today's Champion, draft recommendations were presented at a public meeting on January 19th (which I missed because of work), and are now available online for public comment until Feb. 2nd.

The new routes proposed still aren't perfect, but they're a significant improvement.

With this I could get to my old workplace using only one bus and a considerably less circuitous route, although there'd still be a 15 minute walk involved. And although it's still a radial system, they do seem to have more two-way routes and fewer complex loops, making the whole thing easier to navigate.

All this will cost more money of course, but as luck would have it, Milton is about to get a big boost in the amount of gas tax revenue it receives from the federal government as a result of our growing population. Perfect timing!

Just as long as they don't blow it all on another million dollar imported glass wall.

* yes, the realtors actually call it 'Olde Milton'.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

The Local Food Bandwagon: Loblaws vs. La Rose

2008 seems to have been the year when the mainstream clued into the local food movement. The Province of Ontario dusted off their old "Good Things Grow in Ontario" jingle, and Loblaws ran a series of ads promoting their "Grown Close to Home" campaign showing Boy Wonder Galen Weston walking the fields with various generic "local farmers". They even put out a press release boasting that 25% of the fresh produce purchased by Loblaws in 2007 was grown in Canada.

Even if that is true (and of course, 'grown in Canada' doesn't necessarily mean local), is 25% really anything to brag about? And how does Loblaws stack up against other grocery stores when it comes to local produce?

I decided to find out.

I chose four Milton grocery stores - Loblaws Superstore, A&P, Food Basics, and La Rose - and started counting. I counted the number of varieties of fresh produce they carried that could normally be grown in Ontario (i.e. counting different types of apples and peppers separately), but leaving out things like tropical fruits and certain exotic vegetables. Then I counted all the items marked "Product of Ontario". Then I counted all the items that were mis-labelled as being from Ontario or Canada on the sign, but were in fact from elsewhere - usually the U.S. or Mexico - according to the sticker. If there was no sticker, I gave them the benefit of the doubt.

The winner, by a landslide, was La Rose. They have a relatively small produce section compared to the big stores with only 86 varieties, but over a third of those were from Ontario. And this was in the dead of winter!

The biggest loser? Loblaws, with a paltry 14.6% of their produce varieties from Ontario. Not only that, but a staggering 40% of all the produce marked Product of Ontario or Canada was actually imported. My husband and I have noticed this problem before and complained about it, and have gotten excuses ranging from "we're understaffed and can't keep up" to "the signs are really expensive".

I'm willing to bet the prices are always correct, though.

Some other interesting stats:

- La Rose also had the highest number of types of locally grown produce at 16. Food Basics was last at 9.

- The apple winner was Food Basics. Two thirds of their apple varieties were local, including both bagged and loose apples. La Rose came in second with half their apples grown locally (and all loose - none in bags), and Loblaws was dead last again at a third.

- All four grocery stores had some items mis-labelled as local or Canada grown, but Loblaws was by far the worst offender at 40%. The other three ranged from 12.5% to 18.5%.

- La Rose actually has a surprisingly large variety of produce in stock, despite having a produce section crammed into an area maybe 15 by 30 feet. I counted 86 varieties (again, not including tropicals), which is impressive when compared to the 105-165 varieties spread over at least four or five times the square footage in the big supermarkets.

If you are thinking that I'm a big fan of La Rose, you're right. The store started off over 20 years ago as a family-run Italian bakery in a little strip mall off Bronte in the SW corner of Milton. When the grocery store in that same mall closed down (I think it was a Dominion), La Rose moved into the much larger space and began expanding their offerings to include a large Italian deli and lunch counter (always packed at lunchtime), speciality groceries, a fantastic cheese section, and their growing produce section. Most recently, they purchased a bank of new freezers where they have everything from local ice cream to frozen pastas to gluten-free products.

If they had a meat department, I'd never shop anywhere else.

Despite my bias, though, the numbers don't lie. Here's what these stores have in stock right now. I'll take another look in the summer and in the fall to see how things change.

Loblaws Superstore
   Total produce varieties: 164
   Total Ontario varieties: 24 (14.6%)
   Mis-labelled Ont. or Can.: 16 (40%)
   Ontario produce types: 11 (cabbage, potatoes, mushrooms, tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, garlic, onions, squash, apples, radishes)

La Rose Italian Bakery & Delicatessen
   Total produce varieties: 86
   Total Ontario varieties: 30 (34.9%)
   Mis-labelled Ont. or Can.: 5 (14.3%)
   Ontario produce types: 16 (cabbage, potatoes, tomatoes, mushrooms, tomatoes, peppers, carrots, garlic, onions, apples, radishes, lettuce, celery, beets, brussel sprouts, beans)

Food Basics
   Total produce varieties: 106
   Total Ontario varieties: 28 (26.4%)
   Mis-labelled Ont. or Can.: 4 (12.5%)
   Ontario produce types: 10 (cabbage, potatoes, mushrooms, carrots, onions, apples, beets, celery root, parsnips, rutabega)

   Total produce varieties: 157
   Total Ontario varieties: 35 (22.3%)
   Mis-labelled Ont. or Can.: 7 (18.6%)
   Ontario produce types: 15 (cabbage, potatoes, mushrooms, tomatoes, peppers, carrots, onions, squash, apples, radish, lettuce, beans, celery root, parsnips, rutabega)