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‘Eating and shopping is a political act,’ Food Day Canada a time for advocacy and celebration
A large group gathers at Ryan Crawford's NOTL farm to celebrate Food Day Canada, Canadian goods and talk the social and economic issues surrounding food.
A large group gathers at Ryan Crawford's NOTL farm to celebrate Food Day Canada, Canadian goods and talk the social and economic issues surrounding food. Supplied

Food Day Canada is becoming more than a day for celebrating Canadian food – it’s a day to advocate for the social, economic and environmental issues related to the industry.

At least, that’s what Niagara-on-the-Lake resident Jeff Stewart said his late mother Anita Stewart had always intended.

And Stewart should know, as his mother founded the celebration in 2003 to promote Canadian food amid the mad cow disease scare, which saw Canadian beef banned from countries around the world.

Anita received the Order of Canada for her work as a food journalist and advocate/activist.

“Mom always said eating and shopping is a political act,” said Stewart in an interview on Tuesday.

So, on Saturday, July 30, on a rustic farm in rural Niagara-on-the-Lake, 50 people gathered to celebrate the importance of Canadian produce and farmers for Food Day Canada. Stewart and his family were there.

For Stewart, the impacts and connections of food in our social and economic lives are manifest. 

From supporting Canadian businesses to strengthening community relationships and simply creating the space for a good discussion to take place around a dinner table, he sees food the way his mother did – a path to a better Canada. Indeed, even to a better world.

The Order of Canada’s latin motto is “Desiderantes meliorem patriam.”

“ ‘They desire a better country.’ Mom’s whole thing was and still is to this day for all of her kids, all four of us — do better. So, I guess that’s what we’re trying to do,” said Stewart.

His family is working with several organizations to promote food sustainability and access.

Stewart’s brother Paul Stewart is a chef in Victoria, B.C., and actively works with a charitable organization called Cool Aid. 

“What Cool Aid does is house and feed, I think it’s 1,000 people-plus in Victoria who are food insecure and under housed.”

“And so his role every day is to make sure that they have three square meals and everything else that they need for proper nutrition.”

The Stewarts are also working with the University of Guelph’s Deep Dish Dialogues program, which is hosted at the Anita Stewart Memorial Food Laboratory.

“They’re talking about a variety of different kinds of community and social issues around food. Whether it’s circular, economy, buying local, food insecurity, diversity and cultural representation in the food business.”

The hope is that Food Day Canada will further become a vessel for improving Canada by addressing pressing problems related to food.

“There’s a lot of big picture issues that we’re talking more about. It’s not just necessarily a celebration alone. It’s about having good conversations while you’re at the table, too.”

Even as the Stewart family actively tries to live up to the Order of Canada motto and Anita’s vision, Stewart says Food Day Canada is, at its core, a movement and not an organization.

“It’s not like there’s an office somewhere or something like that,” he said with a laugh.

“We’re in the ether. Our values are really about Canadian ingredients, first and foremost. It’s about local and seasonal and recognizing the people who do all the hard work in the food system for us. Chefs, the growers, the farmers, the foragers, the fisher people.”

“And we’ve been talking about research and education and promoting research and education for years now. But when you look at the discussion about food, really we’re starting to see more about the environment, food security and diversity and inclusion as important values that we have as a movement.”

Stewart said supporting Canadian produce is one step toward a better Canada.

“It’s good for the community — support your neighbours. It’s good for food — it’s fresher. And it’s better for the environment because there’s less food loss and it doesn’t have to travel as far — the carbon footprint is usually lesser.”

“It’s sort of a three-pronged approach.”

Saturday’s Food Day Canada celebration was “a fantastic day,” said food enthusiast Michael Berlis, president of Les Marmitons.

“The whole idea is to inspire Canadians to get out there and shop and cook and dine Canadian,” he said in an interview.

“I think it’s kind of a great concept.”

Berlis’ Marmitons hosted a Food Day Canada celebration last year with Ryan Crawford, head chef and owner of Ruffino’s in Old Town.

Crawford owns a farm in NOTL where he grows his own food for his restaurant.

They kept the tradition alive this year but Crawford wanted to expand the dinner from 25 to 50 people, Berlis said. Les Marmitons took a back seat for the dinner, something Berlis had no problem with.

“We were happy to be able to inspire the event again and to get it going and participate in and support it.”

They dined on fresh vegetables and a pig roasted over an open fire.

Berlis said he supports Food Day Canada as a way to increase awareness about Canadian-grown produce.

“Particularly in the Niagara region. We’re so fortunate, we’ve got everything here,” he said.

“It’s a great opportunity to sit back and appreciate what we have and to get out there and enjoy the bounties that we have here.”

In celebrating Canadian food, we strengthen Canadian communities, he said.

“It’s a big circle, it just goes around and around. If we can strengthen the part that we have incentive with then it just strengthens the whole (Canadian farming and hospitality community).”

Berlis noted one thing he loves about NOTL’s chefs is they already put a focus on using local products in their cooking.

“The whole idea of farm to table has been prevalent here for years,” he said.

Crawford promoted the farm-to-table experience at the event and Berlis said members of the group picked and washed the vegetables that were later served for dinner.

But as Stewart said, Food Day Canada is evolving.

“Canada is pretty freaking amazing if you look around and see it for what it is. I’ve lived on four different continents. I’ve got a little bit of a worldly perspective and, being here, I’m pretty happy with where we’re at,” said Stewart.

“Could we do better? Absolutely — and that’s the whole point.”