Can You Buy Local and Organic at Cub Foods? Part One: The Goods

On the day before Thanksgiving, I wrote how thankful I am for the cohesive network of “11 food co-ops... which do the sourcing and sorting and sifting and screening so I don’t have to.”

Or, as Lee said to me earlier this week: “It’s easy to make good food choices when you do all your shopping at a co-op.”

But what if you don’t? What if you shop at Cub Foods, instead? How, he wondered, could Simple Good and Tasty help shoppers make better choices in a supermarket that doesn't do the filtering for you?

It wasn’t a rhetorical question. So, 36 hours later, I found myself walking in the front door of the Minnetonka Cub Foods – armed with a camera,  notebook and pen. I was there to compile a shopping list, of sorts: what are the best food choices that I, or anyone, can make in this store? Today, in Part One, I will share my general observations as I make my way down the aisles. Tomorrow, in Part Two, I will make concrete recommendations for what to buy.

But first, here’s a little background on Cub Foods. Cub Foods operates 73 stores in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa; 58 of those are located in the Twin Cities metro. Cub is just one of 14 retail grocery chains owned by Eden Prairie’s own SUPERVALU, “one of the largest companies in the U.S. grocery channel with estimated annual sales of $42 billion… 2,400 retail grocery locations… 900 in-store pharmacies… and 180,000 employees,” according to a recent company press release. Suffice it to say that we are dealing with an enormous conglomerate here. These people know grocery shopping inside and out. But what do they know about local, organic, sustainable food? Let’s find out.

1. Produce

I'm encouraged by the signs promoting local farmers, which are posted throughout the produce section. However, I don’t see any actual produce labeled as "local." Instead, there is conventional asparagus from Peru, pineapples from Costa Rica, blackberries from Mexico, and blueberries from Argentina.

I see an employee unloading plastic cartons of lettuce and ask if he could point me to the local produce. He says, “hmmm,” then names the green acorn squash from Organic Valley, the Minnesota Regent apples packed in small Cub Foods bags, and the Bushel Boy tomatoes. On my own, I also discover fresh cranberries from Wisconsin (close enough). That’s it for local produce.

Then I find a subset of the produce section in the back corner, where organic fruits and vegetables – mostly from California and Washington – are isolated from the conventional offerings. This strikes me as odd; why isn’t the organic broccoli next to conventional broccoli, and organic potatoes next to conventional potatoes? This is a practice that I will see again in other sections of the store.

2. Seafood

I walk up to the glass-front seafood case and notice the words “crab legs” on a sign stuck to the front. There seem to be two kinds: skinny ones and not so skinny ones. I see no label about their source but assume they’re not local.

There’s another sign on the glass that says “Seafood from around the world.” They aren’t joking! I see Chilean sea bass, Norwegian salmon, Indonesian snapper, Chinese steelhead trout, and shrimp the size of small lobster tails from Bangladesh. Unfortunately, there’s no one behind the counter that I could talk to about sustainable seafoods, so I move on to…

3. Meat

In the next glass case are the premium meats. The gentleman working behind it asks if I need help, so I tell him I’m looking for anything local, free-range or grass-fed… “Like something from Thousand Hills Cattle Company, for instance.” He shakes his head and says no, they don’t carry anything like that.

“Really?” I’m incredulous. “Is that because you ran out?” (I’m trying not to be judgmental.) He says no, they rarely have it at all; once in a while, they get “organic hamburger,” he explains.

 “What about pork?”  (Still trying.) He says everything by Hormel could be considered local pork.

 “What about chicken?” (Trying still.) He answers Gold'n Plump.

I thank him and wander off to explore the meat coolers on my own. There sure are a lot of Gold’n Plump packages. But I also notice two additional brands of chicken: MBA’s Smart Chicken and Wild Harvest, Cub Foods’ own private label. They all have boneless, skinless chicken breasts; one sells for $6.99 a pound, another is $6.49, and the other, $5.99. What’s the difference, and which should you buy? I’ll get to that in tomorrow’s post.

4. Milk

I walk another quarter of a mile or so to get to the milk section. There’s another set of signs promoting Minnesota farmers; in this case, it’s a photo of the Duske family from Waverly, Minnesota. They look very nice. There’s another sign, advertising Kemp milk, which says, “It’s local. It’s fresh. It’s the cows.” The cows look nice, too. Kemp milk – rBST-free but not organic -- fills the cooler underneath. Across the aisle, in a separate section, are two types of organic milk – Old Home, based in St. Paul, and Stonyfield Farm, from New Hampshire. Again, three choices, ranging from $3.99 a gallon to a whopping $9.38 a gallon. Is there a good reason to pay that much for milk? Find out tomorrow.

5. Bread

At the in-store bakery, freshly-baked loaves are being unloaded from a rack onto a set of shelves. But I don’t see any national brands, like Pepperidge Farm, there, so I wander over to another section of the store to locate them. Seeing nothing local or organic there either, I retrace my steps (if only I had left a path of bread crumbs) back to the bakery and ask an employee if any of Cub’s breads are made with organic flour. She says no, but adds that they have gluten-free bread in another section of the store, called Natural Foods.

6. Breakfast Food

On my way to the Natural Foods aisle, I pass the cereal aisle and see lots of General Mills products (local?) but none that are organic. Then I see a sign for “Pancake Syrup," which leads to my first delightful surprise of the morning: a simple, wholesome, completely local product. It's pure maple syrup from the Hamel Maple Syrup Company in Hamel, Minnesota. I am so happy, I take a photo of it.

7. Natural Foods

At the end of another long aisle, past the seemingly endless varieties of dried pasta and jars of pasta sauce, I finally find the "Natural Foods" section. Apparently, “natural foods” includes Alba shampoo, Burt's Bees lip balm, and Tom’s of Maine toothpaste. Oh, yes. Here is also where they've put organic cereals that weren’t included in the main cereal section in the store's northern latitudes. For my second pleasant surprise of the day, I discover fair-trade coffee under the private-label Cub Foods brand - nice! - and even a fair-trade chocolate cocoa mix. But then I notice other products that someone also must consider “natural,” such as Sweet'n'Low Chocolate Sauce and Sweet'n'Low Strawberry sauce, as well as cans of Campbell's low-sodium chicken broth.

At the very end of the Natural Foods aisle is a small bulk section with the requisite dried fruit, nuts, and granola.

But no bread. Gluten-free or otherwise.

It’s time for me to wrap things up, take a few photos and begin to formulate some recommendations.

Coming up tomorrow: Part Two, The Recommendations