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2018 Great “Local” Shopping Challenge

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By Fresh Bites

A year ago the media world was on all cylinders talking about the “local food movement” and the controversy over the fundamental “locavore” lifestyle being unattainable.  A newspaper published an article where a local shopper was challenged to eat only items from 100kms of their home.  The problem with the piece was that the challenge took place in January and the contender, from Toronto, was apparently a vegetarian.

Since then, we have seen a flood of advertising from Loblaws on their support of local food and farmers.  Sobeys has also weighed into the race claiming that they too are committed to fresh and responsible eating.  Metro, formerly known as Dominion, has for many years claimed to be “fresh obsessed”.  The question to be asked is “what defines fresh” and “what is each of these major chains doing to deliver the goods”?  Farmers’ Markets are great for accessing local fresh food but let’s face it, not everyone has access to one in their local community.  What is a guy or gal in suburban Toronto to do if all they are looking for is some fresh, local, and responsible food in January?

To prove a point, Gremolata embarked on a semi-formal study in Toronto this past January we like to call our 2018 Great “Local” Shopping Challenge.  It was not as strict as the newspaper’s report from a year earlier.  We agreed that the 100km diet is hard to survive on in a Canadian Winter.  Instead, we mystery-shopped at the top three chain grocers in Toronto to see which stores had the best offering for those looking to purchase local and sustainable foods.

The goal of the challenge was to determine if it was possible to buy and eat local or responsible food through a mass-retailer (i.e. not a specialty grocer).  The second goal was to successfully create at least two meals a day using locally-sourced products offering the necessary nutritional balance of protein, grains, fruits and vegetables.  And finally, we wanted to identify stores making an effort to deliver more local food and responsible food alternatives.  We also wanted to disprove the myth that eating local was more costly, but this was a secondary goal.



The rules for the challenge were as follows:

  1. Each visit had to provide enough grocery items to incorporate at least two meals a day for two people consisting of Proteins (Chicken, Beef, Pork, Lamb, Fish, Eggs), Vegetables (Cucumbers, Peppers, Broccoli, “Other”), Fruits (Apples, Plums, Tomatoes, “Other” ), Starches (Yams, Potatoes, Rice, Pasta), Dairy (Milk, Yogurt, Cheese, Sour Cream) as well as Grains and Desserts (Breads, Rolls, Desserts, Cereal).
  2. The items had to be… FIRST, locally grown or artisan products made from local ingredients made within 100kms of the store (Foodland Ontario, LFP, or Ontario Greenhouse).  If not capable of being grown locally, the SECOND category would be grown using sustainable or eco-responsible methods (fair trade coffee from Jamaica was OK but not organic beef from another region).  FINALLY, an item could be considered if it supported local artisan production of food staples (local smaller-scale artisan bakeries or preserve companies but not industrial products owned by a multi-national).
  3. The final bill had to be reasonable with an average cost of $50.00/person providing at least 2 meals/day in a given work week.  It was assumed that a set of pantry staples including seasonings, oils, sugar, and basic condiments existed.
  4. The items needed to be visible and accessible in the store with labeling to indicate origins.  In addition, the time spent in the store could not exceed 40 minutes – to factor in the need for convenience.



The rating system included base points (Score out of 50) and bonus points (Enhanced Points based on overall Effort to Support Affordable Local Eating).  The base points were as follows:

Meal Variety:  A total of 2 points were issued for each successful meal one could create (assuming 2 each day of a 5-day work week) with the goods from the shopping basket – Total Points 20

Basket Variety:  A single point was issued for each successful ingredient procured from each of the categories (Protein, Vegetable, etc..) with a maximum of three ingredients each being allotted for rating. – Total Points 18

Basic Dairy:  Given the prominence of basic local/organic dairies being available in all stores, we awarded a mere 2 points for carrying an Organic Meadow, Harmony, etc.. brand – Total Points 2

Signage:   For adequate signage and prominence of displayed local items – Total Points 10

Bonus Points were issued within two categories and were seen as a way for a store to “redeem” themselves if they could not provide the base coverage we defined as being important.  The goal here was to identify an effort to make local food a priority and more importantly, affordable.

Price/Value:  The price/item average was set at $5.00 and based on 20 items for a total grocery bill of $100.00.  For every $0.10 over the average, a point was deducted.  For every $0.10 under the average, a point was added.

Product Source:  Each item purchased received 3 points for being locally grown or artisan products made from local ingredients made within 100kms.  If it supported local artisan production, the product received 2 points.  Finally, if it could not be locally procured but was grown using sustainable or eco-responsible methods, the product received 1 point. 



We looked at our map of Toronto, closed our eyes, and threw a dart.  It landed near the corner of Jane and Bloor streets near the Jane Subway station in the west end.  We then selected three separate stores, one from each supermarket chain, to the north, south and east of our location.  On three separate weekends, we visited each of the stores with our standardized grocery list.


Loblaws – Dundas/Kingsway Market – January 3rd, 2018

One could argue that our visit to Loblaws was met with a higher degree of scrutiny than the other chains.  The Loblaw franchise has spent millions of dollars in the recent year to advertise their commitment to local food.  We were going to be the judge of that. First was the produce area where we found Empire, Crispin, MacIntosh, and Honeycrisp apples from Ontario.  Loose white mini potatoes were from Canada, as were most of the bag bulk options.  However, we did find it disappointing that the President’s Choice brand potatoes came from USA.  Bulk onions in all forms and bagged carrots were available from Ontario or Canada. 

None of the peppers came from Ontario.  Both white and cremini mushrooms were available from Sharon Farm in Ontario along with some local hot-house Boston lettuce, cucumbers, and tomatoes on the vine. In terms of grains and bread, they offered Ace, Stonemill, and ShaSha bagged and freshly baked artisan varieties. 

The deli and cheese counter was an area where they excelled.  We found Niagara Gold and Blue Haze Cheese.  Artisan Salt Spring Island goat cheese was also available.  The labeling was where they truly impressed us with flags used to indentify cheeses from Ontario, Quebec, Canada, and abroad. We were also impressed with the proteins.  They carried a full range of Beretta farms meat and a local “free from” pork and chicken.  Over at the fish counter, we picked up some fresh Wild Pickerel from Lake Ontario. In terms of dairy, they carried the full product line of Organic Meadow milk, yogurt, cheeses, sour cream, and yogurt.  They also carried Rowe Farms eggs. 

One of the market’s top assets was the organic and sustainable foods section.  Here, they carried a wide range of products from the full Lundberg line of rice to eco-friendly cereals, jams, syrups, oils, and gluten-free products.  They also carried the Ethical Bean, Kickinghorse, and Equita brands of fair trade coffee. Overall, we were impressed with Loblaws.  Our end bill included 21 items costing $113.29 and a total of 10 full meals being adequately prepared – with additional opportunities to create another day’s worth of meals if we wanted to.

Metro – Liberty Village – January 9th, 2018

The Metro location we visited was successful in their ability to accurately label but this may have been due to the fewer local items requiring labeling.  On our grocery trek through the store we were able to find three types of Ontario apples (Crispin, Empire, and Macintosh) and some more of the Ontario Greenhosue Boston lettuce. There were lots of Ontario-grown cabbage, sprouts, and celery root. 

In terms of greenhouse items, the green peppers were available however; every other category consisted of Mexican grown tomatoes, cucumbers, and other greens packaged in Ontario.  Loose potatoes were all from the United States, with the exception of bagged sweet and white potatoes from Ontario. Over at the dairy and deli areas, the only cheese we could find of any artisan nature was the Salt Spring Island goat cheese from British Columbia at $12.99. 

They did carry Organic Meadow milk and butter and a brand of free-range eggs. For bread, they offered some Stonemill branded but pre-packaged and sliced whole grain, but no Ace Bakery or artisan-baked varieties.  They did offer Premiere Moisson bread, but this is no-doubt due to their Quebec-based affiliation. Like the other stores, they offered Ethical Bean and Kickinghorse fair-trade coffee brands. 

The meat department was an immense disappointment.  There was a very small selection of “free-from” meats with very little detail provided on the processes or standards used to define “free-from”.  We assumed it was no growth hormones.  The origins of the product were also unclear.  When asked, the butcher told us that it could come from a wide-variety of places.  On this particular day, they had received a shipment from Manitoba and therefore, as per the rules, we could not add it to the basket.  The same could be said about the fish market – not even pickerel.

The last thing we noticed was the Natural and Organic section.  This could not have been more misleading as it was filled with weight loss powders, energy drinks, and bars and other than this section, we could not easily find any other organic or natural products.  Our end bill included 15 items costing $62.30 and a total of 5 full meals being adequately prepared – primarily breakfast.


Sobeys – Queensway/Humber – January 24, 2018

Sobeys was our final stop and proved to be disappointing at first, yet finishing with some pleasant surprises.  Produce-wise, we found red, green and savoy cabbage, bean sprouts, and mushrooms clearly labeled as being from Ontario.  They had a full range of apples (Gala, MacIntosh, Empire) as well as Mandarin tomatoes, and seedless cucumbers.  However, the Squash was from Mexico – something we found simply bizarre given the season and capabilities for storage.  All potatoes were from Canada with the exception of mini reds and whites which came from the USA. The cheese counter was a major disappointment with most of the cheeses being from Europe and only a handful being from Quebec and part of a conglomerate producer. 

In terms of bread, they offered Stonemill packaged breads and Ace Bakery baguettes.  They did however carry organic bagels and breads from Stickling's Bakery in Peterborough – something we had not easily seen at the other stores.  Again, the full range of Organic Meadow milk, sour cream, yogurt, and packaged cheeses existed.  In terms of eggs, they offered Rowe Farms and Burnbrae free run varieties.  Kickinghorse coffee was also available as a fair-trade option.

One item we found to be of particular note was the prominence of their Chippery branded chips as an alternative local artisan snack.  The display clearly indicated that the potatoes were local and that they were made in-house using the Chippery method.  Chippery is a local Toronto producer of old-fashioned and all-natural potato chips.

Where Sobeys gained serious points was in the meat and fish departments.  Their “free from” brand of hormone-free beef, chicken, and pork products were not only prominently displayed but had a Foodland Ontario logo on them to indicate they were in fact – Ontario grown.  In the fish department, the staff was knowledgeable of all the varieties on display which included a Pickerel Fillet from Georgian Bay. 

Our end bill included 20 items costing $104.89 and a total of 10 full meals being adequately prepared – mainly due to the abundance of meat, chicken, and fish we were able to add to our basket.



Based on our shopping experiences and the rating system, we were able to declare some winners and losers across the board. In terms of BASE POINTS, all three scored well for the dairy and were awarded their 2 points each. 

GOLD…went to Loblaws with a score of 44 out of 50 possible base points.  They received full-scores for meal variety and 16/18 for basket variety.  We awarded them 6 points out of 10 however for their in-store signage.  While their cheese department was very well labeled the standardized and hard to read labeling in the produce area made defining the local product a challenge.  Just because it was from Canada did not mean it was from Ontario.

SILVER…went to Sobeys with a score of 40 out of 50 possible base points.  They received full-scores for meal variety and 10/18 for basket variety.  We awarded them 8 points out of 10 for labeling.  The “origins” labeling in the produce area was impressive and easy to follow.  The addition of the Foodland Ontario badge to their “Free From” products was a smart move and we rewarded them for this.

BRONZE…went to Metro with a score of 26 out of 50 possible base points.  They received only 10 points for meal variety and 9/18 for basket variety.  We awarded them 5 points out of 10 for labeling.  While they did have decent labeling in the produce area, we found the clarity of determining the products origins in the meat and fish departments non-existent.  We also felt that the labeling of the organic and natural food section filled with energy drinks and protein powders to be poor.  


In addition to the base points, we awarded “bonus points” for key metrics…value and product origins. 

In terms of Value, we were surprised to find that Metro was the winner with the average cost being $4.15 (4 Bonus Points).  After having found few options to “fill our basket”, of the items we were able to procure from Metro, they did a great job on pricing.  Loblaws averaged a cost per item of $5.39 each (Less 3 Points) while Sobeys averaged $5.24 each (Less 2 Points). 

In terms of Product Source, Metro received 39 Bonus Points, mainly due to the fact that of the items we could find, 10 out of the 15 were locally sourced.  Sobeys received 50 Bonus Points given the fact that everything (with the exception of the cheese and coffee) was 100% local.  The additional fact that the bread and bagels were organic AND locally sourced helped to boost their bonus point count as well.  Then there was Loblaws.  It turned out that all the advertising was for good reason.  They received 55 bonus points mainly due to the fact that almost every item in our basket was locally sourced. 

The final scores:                    

                    Store           Base Points      Bonus Points     FINAL SCORE

FIRST            Loblaws              44                  51                    95

SECOND         Sobeys               40                  47                    87           

THIRD            Metro                 36                  43                    79  


While this was hardly a comprehensive marketing study, it did serve a valuable purpose and we have to admit, it was a challenge to execute.  Market demand for local, fresh, and organic has seen a steady increase over the past 10 years.  As a result, the old days of price-focused buying to drive profitability is going head-to-head with the basics of marketing…listen to the customer, provide what they want, and earn their loyalty.

Of the three stores, Loblaw and Sobeys proved that you could feed a family in Ontario, during Winter, with locally-sourced food.  Loblaw was the overall winner but could learn some lessons from Sobeys when it comes to in-store signage and labelling.   Loblaw did have some great “gourmet” olive oils, vinegars, and pastas but this was a challenge to find the best in local, not the world’s best. 

Sobeys had some great labeling on their “free from” products but other than that, the overall theme here was focused on large brand-name staples from major producers.  They should look into adding more local artisan products to the mix – the bagels and bread were a good start. 

Metro, while third in both base points and bonus points did have a significant advantage when it came to pricing.  The challenge for them will be to beef up their local offering – specifically in the meat, fish, and poultry departments.  They could also do some work in the cheese counter…and we strongly suggest they look at Loblaws as an example.  They should carpool with Sobeys as they need to get their cheese counter into shape as well.

Many “foodies” come down hard on these giant grocers and accuse them for being the reason our food has gone from being good for us to cheap for us.  That is not entirely true.  As consumers, we make the choice to place priorities on how we spend our money and what we define as value.  Each of the stores we visited have seen the impact of the Wal-Mart invasion on pricing and rallied the troops to combat them.  Until recently however, they ignored another major competitor – the local food movement.  We feel confident that some of the retailers we visited are making an effort and if consumers respond, we will most likely see the trend continue.

Keep on shopping folks!


Great Story! I have often thought of doing just that but thank you for doing it for me. Nice to know when you run out of CSA products. You should send your results directly to the stores!
Post Reply By Oksana in OSHAWA on 2/26/2018 8:27:10 AM

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