arlier this spring, I stepped into a Metro to do a simple price comparison on some food staples. While walking through the store I happened across a 2.5kg fruit tray that cost $22.00. I took a picture and posted it on Twitter (also known as X) with the caption, “What are we doing here folks?” I then went back to my day and didn’t think about it until I checked back on my post in the evening. To my surprise the internet had converged onto my post. Dozens of people expressed incredulity at the picture I posted, and others shared pictures of fruit trays with even steeper prices. 

BlogTO's news story about my tweet.

The next day, BlogTO ran a story on the tweet, referring to me as a baffled shopper. I considered letting them know that I was a data journalist that had been working on a project involving grocery prices for months, but I didn’t have to because my friend Jay set the record straight in the comments.

“Eric isn’t a baffled shopper. He’s a data journalist who uses his software skills to cover food prices in Toronto. He developed the food price tracker for The Hoser,” said Jay. “Eric is not baffled, he knows exactly what’s going on.”

Jay setting the record straight about my work and Karen responding with an off-topic but exciting job opportunity

The one thing Jay may have gotten wrong is that, in addition to being a data journalist using my software skills to cover food prices in Toronto, the reason I am doing this work is because I am a baffled shopper.

Seeing the collective indignation at a simple thing like the price of a fruit tray stuck with me. Food prices affect all of us, obviously. Despite the atomizing, individualizing experience of going to the grocery store, the feeling you get when you see a particularly high price for a basic food item is something that the people around you in the store most likely share. 

My own personal experience with food inflation manifested as a data journalism project. I have a specific skill set and I can use it to track the price of groceries at stores in the city. But just like my feelings of disdain for overpriced fruit trays, I found that my willingness to try and find some sort of solution for an issue much larger than myself was not entirely unique. 

A month after being called a baffled shopper, I sent an interview request to speak with the organizers of the Loblaw boycott. Their growing movement and mainstream popularity seemed to be of interest to the Grocery Tracker’s audience. Within a few minutes my phone started ringing. I was surprised when I found out the person on the other end of the line was the lead organizer of the boycott. I was even more surprised when I realized she was a former work friend of mine.

Emily Johnson is a social worker and a single mother of two who lives in the suburbs west of Toronto. We met while working for a housing charity from 2017-2018. I was not aware that she was the person behind this group when I had reached out. I had seen her name in news stories about the boycott, but it’s common enough that I didn’t make the connection.

"But just like my feelings of disdain for overpriced fruit trays, I found that my willingness to try and find some sort of solution for an issue much larger than myself was not entirely unique."

Emily is the exact kind of person I’d expect to be running a boycott against one of the major grocery store companies in the country. She’s smart, stubborn and a natural leader. In the work we did, I knew her to argue on behalf of partner families against people twice her age and to have an innate ability to win people over. 

After the initial shock of my impromptu work reunion, it was so funny to me that, half a decade after leaving that job, I’d be working on something in parallel with someone that previously shared a cubicle wall with me. You might have called me a baffled journalist.

The main staging area for the Loblaw Boycott is the subreddit r/Loblawsisoutofcontrol. As of publishing this story there are 84,000+ members on the subreddit. Emily started the subreddit in November 2023, after seeing a post on a different subreddit, r/Ontario. 

“Somebody had posted on the Ontario subreddit, a holiday planter, which was $85, and it's just sticks and ribbon,” said Emily. The post read “Loblaws is out of control - Holiday Edition”. She said that was the moment it clicked for her.

Emily created her online community soon after seeing that post. It grew steadily, bringing in people from all over Canada who were frustrated by the rising cost of groceries. One of the earlier members was Rick Brown, a 69-year-old retired boat engineer from Newfoundland. When I spoke with him, I asked if I could refer to him as Rick. 

“You can call me anything you like, just don’t call me late for supper,” he said.

Rick joined the subreddit when there were only 1500 people. He said the rising price of food has been bothering him for a few years but the breaking point for him came about a year ago. “I went up to Dominion (Loblaw-owned grocery store) and a block of butter was $9.59,” he said. “I haven’t bought anything there for over a year.”

"The boycott has been a perfect outlet for my anger"

Rick says he’s lucky because he can find work as a chief engineer on a ship fairly easily, but he sees how the cost of groceries has affected friends of a similar age.

“I’m seeing this from the seniors’ point of view,” said Rick, adding that friends of his on fixed incomes were finding it difficult to afford groceries. 

“The boycott has been a perfect outlet for my anger,” he laughed. 

I can relate to Rick and Emily wanting to do something after seeing people struggling with rising prices. One of the reasons I was motivated to create a Grocery Tracker was seeing the lineup outside the food bank in my neighbourhood start to stretch the length of the entire block. After doing some reading on the topic and learning that 18 per cent of households in the ten provinces faced food insecurity in 2022, I was committed to finding a way to start this project.

People continued to join the subreddit in 2024, but Emily mentioned two specific moments that led to very large influxes of members. 

“We really started to gain traction and gain more attention when Loblaws announced they were removing the 50 per cent off stickers,” said Emily, referring to the store reducing its 50 per cent discounts to 30 per cent on perishables reaching their best before date. “People - pun intended - lost their bananas and we saw numbers of almost 16,000 members overnight.”

The second moment Emily referred to was the controversial Loblaw/Manulife deal. According to Emily, the announcement in January that 260 prescription drugs would soon only be fulfilled at Loblaw-owned pharmacies led to another huge wave of sign-ups. After the massive pushback from the public, Manulife reversed their decision. 

“We started to see these very natural conversations cropping up about how we should boycott,” said Emily. “We should be doing more as consumers to hold these people accountable.”

The group decided on a 30-day boycott of Loblaw-affiliated stores on May 1. National attention and widespread media coverage followed. Twenty days later, they sent a press release announcing that the boycott would be extended indefinitely.

Emily said that as the group grew in size so did their list of demands, but the goal has always been to make food more affordable for Canadians.

“When we were in our infancy, we had two demands: a 15 per cent price reduction and an end to members-only pricing,” said Emily. “Ideally what we'd like to see are lower food prices and having more food security for the general population.”

The current list of demands for the Loblaw boycott are:

  • Signing the grocery code of conduct,
  • No further retailer-led price increases for 2024,
  • No further increases to dividends,
  • Increased cost transparency (i.e. identifying the items which have undergone “shrinkflation”),
  • A commitment to affordable pricing (price caps on essential items),
  • A commitment to ending price gouging, with prices quickly reflecting the market.

So far, one of these demands has been met. On May 16, Loblaw CEO Per Bank agreed to sign a revised copy of the Grocery Code of Conduct, although he has said on record that it had nothing to do with the boycott. The Grocery Code of Conduct is a set of rules that intend to protect food providers from being strong-armed by large grocery stores. It is also supposed to help lower grocery prices and was prioritized by the federal government in the fall as a way to help stabilize prices. The code of conduct was developed by the Canadian Grocery Industry without legislation or regulation by any level of government, and will be enforced by an Adjudication Office that relies on voluntary membership. Code violators will be reported on publicly, and any disputes between members that can’t be solved through mediation will be handled by a third party.

As happy as they were about the news around the code of conduct, one demand has been disregarded entirely. At the beginning of May, Loblaw increased their dividends by 15 per cent

Emily said she was not surprised about Loblaw signing the Grocery Code of Conduct. She added that Per Bank mentioned he would sign it when they met during the first week of May.

Emily met with Per Bank at a coffee shop attached to a Real Canadian Superstore in the west GTA. Emily said she went there along with two other boycott organizers, who sat in a car while she met with Bank inside. A document including the questions she asked during the meeting was uploaded on their subreddit. 

According to labour historian Jon Weier, it is not an uncommon practice during a boycott for the CEO to meet with organizers. 

“Employers are going to do everything they can, besides making concessions,” he said. 

Jon said that it’s important to remember that the problem with the cost of groceries is larger than just the prices at Loblaws, and that they are a symptom of something else. 

“One of the main structural issues is that we have a business-friendly government that refuses to enter into the realm of price controls,” he said. “It’s fascinating, it’s always happy to regulate the market when it comes to labour and it’s never happy to intervene in the market when it comes to the price of goods.”

While he says he’s generally supportive of the boycott, Jon shared his uncertainty about whether a boycott on its own would be enough to get grocery stores to drop their prices. 

He mentioned that boycotts are typically a strategy employed alongside other actions and that most successful boycotts were just one facet of a multi-platformed effort to achieve a goal.

“Pressure needs to be put on the government to intervene,” he said. 

"People need to rise up."

Rick shared a similar sentiment.

“Minister Champagne mentioned he was disappointed after being snubbed by Loblaws, yeah well we’re disappointed too,” said Rick, referring to Industry Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne’s reaction to the lack of transparency from the grocer on how it was addressing food inflation. 

As grocery prices continue to be a financial burden on working people, individuals like the boycott organizers are looking for a solution to a problem many other people in their communities are also facing. Rick summarized what he thinks needs to be done in five short words.

“People need to rise up,” he said.

The boycott is such a familiar thing to me because it comes from the same place as The Hoser’s data project. The Grocery Tracker is my attempt to create a tool that could provide people with cheaper food options. The boycott is a group of people who are seeking improved conditions through collective action because food affordability is not getting better.

Our food system is very opaque and complex, and with nobody in positions of power stepping up to offer real, tangible solutions to the affordability crisis affecting all of us, people like Rick and Emily have decided to take matters into their own hands. 

Regardless of your position on whether or not a blanket boycott of Loblaw-owned stores is the most effective way of holding grocery stores accountable for their prices, it is undeniable that the boycott has forced the conversation about food affordability back into the public sphere. People want to talk about food prices again, they want to hear about how food prices increased at twice the rate of inflation at their peak. Because of the boycott, more people want to know if there is something they can put time and energy towards to help make things a little bit easier.

I agree with Jon that a multifaceted approach that includes labour action and pressure on the government would increase the chances of lowered food prices. But maybe this is not solely the responsibility of the people who organized this boycott. 

All of us have to eat. 

If you are looking for an easy way to help people in your community find more affordable food items, we have an ongoing project that we’d love to tell you about. 

The Hoser is collecting grocery prices from local stores in Kensington Market so we can find the cheapest prices for food staples in the neighbourhood. We’ve created an online tool you can use from your phone to share food price data with the community. There is a sign up sheet available for our next training session available here.

We plan on exporting this working model to other communities as soon as we can, but the success of the Kensington Market project is what is going to make this possible. 

May 28, 2024
Support our Journalism