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Keep your foot on the gas

One angle I’m considering with regards to the U.S. election outcome is the implications on our own food sovereignty.

And sadly, one perspective I’ll miss is from my go-to source for food-related opinion, inspiration, information and friendship for the past 25 years, Elora culinary giant Anita Stewart.

Anita, widely and accurately regarded in Canada as the heart of the local food movement here, died last week at the age of 73. Her passing is a huge loss for her family, friends and acquaintances, not to mention the hole it leaves in Canada’s agri-food sector. Simply put, there is no one like her waiting in the wings, ready to take on the role she willingly served as our country’s food laureate. 

I visited often with Anita to talk about her immovable, nationalistic, and pioneering perspectives on Canadian food – perspectives that inspired her to start in 2003 what would become Food Day Canada to support beleaguered beef producers here.

She didn’t mince words.

“I said then, and I still do now, that if we don’t get behind these farmers and keep them in business, we won’t have them,” she told me for an article about Food Day Canada in 2017. “Then what? Wait for other countries to come and dump whatever food they have extra on our doorstep?”

That concern escalated when, a year later, U.S. President Donald Trump was pouring billions of dollars into farm aid for American producers. Anita again urged Canadians to get behind those who produce and prepare food here.

“Nothing is more patriotic – or more environmentally responsible – than feasting on our local northern bounty,” she said. “Even though, for years eating locally has been a movement and a way of life for many Canadians from every corner of the nation, this year is a watershed moment. If there ever was a time to eat like a Canadian, cook like a Canadian and shop like a Canadian, it’s now.”

Giving the pending U.S. election results, I wonder what she’d say today about torqueing up support for homegrown farmers. I think I know, but one of the joys of interviewing Anita was coming away with quotes from her that you absolutely couldn’t resist using in your story, quotes that were spontaneous and came about in conversation.

It’s hard to accept that those quotes will come no more.

Observer readers will recall that most lately, Anita’s passion was to have the long weekend in August – the one that’s come to be associated with Food Day Canada – officially connected to Canadian food in perpetuity. She ran into some resistance, with people arguing such recognition should instead be associated with Thanksgiving. Others said make it in February, tied into Canada’s Ag Day.

No way, said Anita. The first weekend in August “is when Canadians are buying – often at farmers’ markets – cooking and sharing the local harvest. This is not my invention; this is reality.” Maybe her passing will be a catalyst for the feds to do the right thing and follow her suggestion.

Anita uniquely understood and championed the connection between farming and cuisine, including the research that leads to new varieties. She worked with food scientists and others at the University of Guelph – which officially named her its food laureate – to create the first and only Guelph Food Inventory, way back in 1999.

Earlier this year, the university announced a $1.3 million lab was being outfitted with state-of-the-art appliances and food preparation equipment for some 250 students enrolled each year in a second-year course called Understanding Foods. The lab is being called The Anita Stewart Alumni Food Laboratory.

I believe that when it comes to food sovereignty, Anita would tell us to keep our foot on the gas. The gains that have been made in local food have a strong grassroots foundation. She was always optimistic about the future of Canadian food; now it’s our turn to pick up the torch.

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