Disclosure: I was invited to a food bloggers’ event and focus group-type sessions in Toronto last week by a marketing company representing Hellmann’s. They paid for all expenses, including airfare, hotel and meals, over one weekend. There was no obligation or contract required of me to write about it.

Fredericton Farmer's Market

There we were, eight food bloggers from across Canada. Our only initial, shared characteristic was a passion for food, and an unhealthy addiction to blogging. We sat in a conference room of a Toronto hotel wondering what Hellmann’s mayonnaise had to do with local food and why the company owned by Unilever had flown us all here.

I mean, we had an idea based on phone calls and emails with the marketing company that made us curious enough to agree to the trip. But there were still many questions to be answered.

Over two days, we learned about Hellmann’s benevolent, yet risky, new campaign. Eat Real, Eat Local is a call to Canadians to eat food grown at home, and to support local producers.

It’s a catalyst to getting people to think about how far strawberries have to travel, for example, to get to our plates in the middle of winter, and to raising discussions over how buying locally grown food sustains our own economy and environment.

All timely and worthy topics. As one participant said, “It’s like asking people to support world peace.”

What’s in it for Hellmann’s?

So what’s this got to do with mayonnaise? There’s a tangible link in that Hellmann’s is made with real eggs from Burnbrae Farms in Ontario and Quebec, and with canola oil from the Prairies.

But Hellmann’s and its marketing partners are trying something bold. And for someone like me fascinated with media, it’s an interesting initiative.

They’re essentially trying to associate their brand with a lifestyle. It’s less about pushing the Hellmann’s label into your face, and more about putting money and effort behind an admirable issue. And they want people talking about it, which is why they wanted to brief food bloggers about what they’re doing.

MayonnaiseIf it works, local producers will get a boost, and people will be thinking more about what they’re buying and eating, and Hellmann’s will get some of the credit, which I’m sure they hope translates into brand loyalty and market share.

But the campaign is risky in terms of traditional advertising because the Hellmann’s brand isn’t necessarily stamped on everything. So it could be spending a lot of money for little to no name recognition.

Show me the money

Whether it’s sincerity or smart marketing, the Eat Real, Eat Local campaign has several encouraging components.

For every “action” that someone pledges to do on its website — “I commit that I will prepare, buy and eat more local food” — Hellmann’s will donate 25 cents to Evergreen, a non-profit group that creates urban gardens across Canada and runs Brick Works in Toronto.

Every time someone uses the hash tag #realfood to talk about local food on Twitter (including retweets), there will be another 25 cent donation.

Most of the time, our choices are limited to what’s offered at the grocery store. To that end, the website is collecting signatures asking a store to carry more local products. Once the signatures reach a certain threshold, Hellmann’s will send a letter under its letterhead to an individual supermarket.

Who cares?

Hellmann’s commissioned a survey of more than 2,200 Canadians in February and March that held some surprising (well, to me) results. The numbers collected by Harris-Decima were released today.

Almost nine out of 10 Canadians (86 per cent) said they prefer to eat locally sourced foods. But the definition of local food ranged from “a farmer’s market” and “my backyard” to “my province” and “from Canada.” Sixty per cent said they consider packaged goods made with Canadian ingredients to be local food.

Respondents also seemed to be way more concerned about food origins that I would have guessed:

  • 71 per cent said they read labels and packages to see where the food is produced.
  • 68 per cent said they always pay attention to the origins of the food they eat.
  • 77 per cent said they’re willing to spend more on a locally produced item versus something similar that’s been imported from another country.

The bottom line

Here’s my bottom line: what can it hurt? With governments slashing budgets and wealth spread increasingly among the few, if a multinational subsidiary wants to step up and try something different that may change the way we eat, possibly for the better, then I say why not?

And if it stirs up discussion and debate and engagement, then even better.

What do you think? What’s your definition of local food? Would you pay more for it?

Are you aware of how much food Canada imports from other countries? Or is it all just too complicated to think about in day-to-day life?