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)


Cara said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Heavy Panther said...

I love the abundance of data! I wonder what Galen would think? Out of curiosity, I checked to see if he is on Facebook and there are actually a lot of fan pages for him! Have you considered sending your results to Loblaws? Actually, I suspect the owner of La Rose would love to have that data.

Jennifer Smith said...

I'm going to be writing to both the local manager and corporate HQ. If I don't get a satisfactory answer, I'll start looking at other options.

Martin said...

Great post. I live in Toronto but work in Milton and I am on the 100 Mile Diet. Considering Milton's proximity to "farmland", it sure is a wasteland when it comes to local food available compared to Toronto. I've been trying to find somewhere, anywhere, in Milton where I can get something for lunch without it being Brazilian beef, between American buns, garnished with Chinese produce.

Al said...

Great research!
Probably applies to Toronto too with stores like Highland Farms substituting for La Rose.