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The Regenerate Food Festival encouraged thoughtful conversation about the state of our food system.
In Canada, we are mostly disconnected from our food system. Food lines the shelves of huge grocery stores and we buy it, without giving a second thought as to where it comes from. There are grapes from California, kiwis from Italy, and avocados from Israel. There might be a few signs indicating that some fruit comes from Ontario, but which farm grows it? How do they grow their produce? Is it organic, genetically-modified, or sprayed with pesticides?
The first annual Regenerate Food Festival in London and Ridgetown, Ontario was not your typical food fair. Through activities and dining experiences, Regenerate sought to link the rural and urban communities. It delved deeper into the state of our food, from farmer to consumer. Regenerate explored sustainable practices for the sake of the environment, our health, the local food economy, and building community.
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Last year, I was invited by CK Table to connect with farmers and their food in Chatham-Kent, Ontario. This year, CK Table organized Regenerate and I was thrilled to be a part of it.
Not only did I learn about the impact of supporting local food and farmers, but I saw these principles in practice. I learned about the ways I could assist and help foster the local food movement. Through dining, shopping, education, and community building, I learned about the importance of local agriculture and why our consumption habits need to change.
LOCAL DINING EXPERIENCES
Chefs and restaurant owners should care about where their ingredients are sourced. It only makes sense to support the local farmer. As I love shopping at small, local businesses, I’m always impressed when I see those businesses also shopping local. I care about what I eat and put into my body. I feel that it’s best for our health to eat as organic as possible, choose food that’s grown as ecologically as possible without pesticides, and eat food that’s fresh. The best way to ensure that we’re eating healthy is to connect with the local farmer. The farmer knows exactly how his or her product is sourced, grown, and distributed. It’s easier to gather information about your food when you can talk directly to the farmer.
While we might not have those direct ties to the farmer all the time, chefs who source their food locally can ask those important questions on our behalf.
I dined at three restaurants in London that encourage the local food movement by supporting local farmers. Two of the restaurants were entirely vegan and one had an impressive amount of vegan options listed on the menu.
GLASSROOTS – 646 Richmond St., London
The masterpiece dishes at Glassroots are created by Chef Yoda, a visionary in plant-based cooking. They source ingredients as locally as possible and work directly with farmers. The menu is always changing according to what’s fresh and in season. There’s even a three, four, or five course tasting meal where Chef Yoda will prepare a meal that’s a complete surprise (of course, you could specify if you don’t like certain things). I had the three course meal and savored these delectable vegan dishes.
I’ll be writing an entire blog post dedicated to Glassroots soon. In the meantime, here’s a sneak peak at what I ate (a wonton soup and perogies were highlights of my meal):
THE ROOT CELLAR – 623 Dundas St., London
Right on their front sign, you’ll read their motto: “Farm to fork & plough to pint.” The Root Cellar serves organic and local food by working with area farmers. From their website:
Our mission is to change the food system that affects all of us. We believe that food is political, that the choices we make about food — what we choose to eat and whom we choose to support by doing so — resonate through our community, economy, and planet. At the foundation of this project is a commitment to invigorating our community, discovering the plenitude of our local foodshed, supporting sustainable agricultural practices, and working cooperatively.
While The Root Cellar isn’t solely a vegan establishment, there is an emphasis on vegan and vegetarian cuisine. Most dishes can be easily made vegan by request. I visited the restaurant for brunch and was met with a variety of vegan breakfast choices. I ordered the “Simple Cellar Breakfast”, which was not simple at all. It was a huge plate stacked with food, including tofu scramble, home fries, grilled tempeh and toast.
PLANT MATTER KITCHEN – 162 Wortley Road, London
Plant Matter Kitchen is an all vegan restaurant in London, emphasizing healthy, whole food meals. They create fresh and delicious organic meals that are entirely plant-based. They also focus on sourcing their ingredients from local farmers. From their site:
Together, we’re not only creating and serving great meals, but we’re also nurturing a network of partnerships to bring together companies, suppliers, producers, farmers, and other groups with similar food visions and ethos under a single roof to provide a comprehensive vegan dining experience.
I’ll be writing in more detail about my experience at Plant Matter Kitchen soon. For now, catch a peak at what I ate for my main course – vegan mac & cheese with a Caesar salad.
How do we choose restaurants that source locally?
Sometimes it’s hard to tell where our food comes from. Here are some tips to help you on your way:
- Do your research. See if the restaurant has a website, and see if they mention that they source their ingredients from local farmers. It’s even better if they mention specific farms. Restaurants can make claims that they source locally, but you want to make sure that it isn’t just greenwashing.
- Ask questions. Speak to the manager or chef ahead of time and ask them about their dishes. Ask if they cook according to the seasons and what’s readily available at home. Ask where they get their ingredients. It’s important to know if they work with local farmers.
- Don’t be afraid to have conversations about your food. Feel free to ask the restaurant’s staff, “Is this organic?” “Where does this come from?” “What does ‘local’ mean to you?” Businesses should be happy to answer any questions that you might have regarding the meal you’re about to eat.
A great way to connect with area farmers is at the local farmers’ market! London has the Covent Garden Market in the downtown core. On Thursdays and Saturdays from May to December, the Covent Market has an outdoor market featuring food directly from local growers, producers, and farmers. Every vendor at the outdoor market must either grow it, bake it, or make it.
I found everything at this outdoor farmers’ market that I could possibly need for a week’s worth of meals. There were farmers selling fresh and organic produce. There were vendors selling freshly baked bread, preserves,sauces, wine, kombucha, sweets, and local maple syrup. You can chat directly with the farmer about what’s in season. There’s really no better way to connect with a large group of farmers than at the farmers’ market.
Growing Chefs was at the Covent Farmers Market as part of the Regenerate food festival. It’s an initiative that originated in London but has spread across Southwest Ontario. Growing Chefs is all about engaging children in the local food movement by helping them grow and prepare their own cuisine. Yes, kids can get excited about preparing wholesome meals! By educating children about where their food comes from, it helps their families and future generations. Growing Chefs helps to embrace positive changes surrounding food and establishes positive relationships with food.
At the market, there were cooking demonstrations, tastings, interactive booths, and a Thanksgiving stuffing competition – featuring a vegan one prepared by Glassroots that I ate quite happily.
How do we know we’re shopping local at the farmers’ market?
There are farmers’ markets out there that seem more like a typical grocery store in a farmers’ market setting. Here’s how we can distinguish between those ones and the ones featuring farmers from the region:
- See if the farmers’ market has a mission statement. Do they strive to showcase their local farmers and producers?
- Check out the vendor list. Typically, markets will list their vendors. See if there are local farmers on the list and where their products come from.
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Ask the farmers where their fruits and veggies come from. Ask the vendor who bakes bread where they source their flour. And how about the vendor selling preserves and sauces – where do they get their ingredients?
- Buy according to the season. You should see certain items becoming more readily available throughout the season – asparagus and garlic scapes earlier in the season, pumpkins and apples later in the season, for instance. In Canada, there’s pretty good odds that the bunch of bananas or that pineapple wasn’t grown here. Not to say that you shouldn’t stop eating those fruits, but it’s good to be mindful of what comes from the area and what doesn’t.
Why should we care about where our food comes from? Why should we support local farmers instead of big agribusiness?
There are numerous books on the topic and sometimes even better, powerful film documentaries. Through compelling imagery, interviews, and facts, documentaries shed light on issues and work towards a solution.
At Regenerate food festival, we watched a documentary called Sustainable. Sustainable puts forth the notion that, “the future of our food system determines the future of mankind.” The film investigates the environmental instability of the current agricultural system, and how a sustainable food movement can help repair it. We follow a a seventh-generation farmer, Marty Travis, and discover how he transformed his farm and land, shifting away from corporate farming models. The movie encourages people to fight factory farming, join the local food movement, and transition to organic farming practices.
After watching Sustainable, we met for a Q&A with members of the cast, including representatives from Spence Farm Foundation. Spence Farm Foundation strives to connect farmers, chefs, and health professionals in order to develop and cultivate a healthy and sustainable food system. Part of their mission statement:
By connecting chefs, health professionals, and farmers, Spence Farm Foundation is shaping how farmers are growing food (while protecting and improving the environment), how chefs are using their voice to improve food culture in restaurants, schools, government, and at home; and how health professionals are embracing whole food nutrition as a way to wellness. Each of these influencers will ultimately impact the way Americans eat.
We shared ideas over beers at a local brewery, Anderson Craft Ales. I highly recommend that you attend a screening of the film in your area if you get the chance. There are some great resources on both the Sustainable and Spence Farm Foundation websites about how you can take action to make a meaningful difference.
UNITING THE COMMUNITY
On the final day of the Regenerate food festival, we traveled from the city of London to the small village of Ridgetown, Ontario. I’d never heard of Ridgetown before, but it only made sense to host a portion of the event in a rural community. Citizens of the region from all different backgrounds attended the event, which included a bread baking session and a heritage grains tasting. There were local bakers, farmers, chefs, bed and breakfast owners, and bloggers (me!), all eager to learn more about heritage grains.
Master baker, Greg Wade, traveled from Chicago to demonstrate his bread baking expertise. We learned about the various grains, including ancient varieties, that can be baked into delicious bread. Greg brought some of his sixteen year old sourdough starter and baked bread before our eyes.
While I don’t have any experience baking bread, it really made me appreciate the process of baking it from scratch. I’d rather eat this kind of bread over the store-bought variety any day. Not only is it more nutritious, but it tastes way better.
After the baking seminar, we had the chance to taste heritage grains in various forms. There were a vast amount of breads baked from different ancient grains. There was pasta (unfortunately, didn’t get to try as there was egg in it), and beer by local microbrewery, London Brewing Co-op. I got to try an exclusive beer created for the event called, “Magnum P. Einkorn” made from an ancient variety of wheat from the Middle East, Einkorn wheat.
This was a fantastic opportunity for community leaders and food enthusiasts to get together and appreciate locally grown food. Strengthening a regional grain economy is vital for a secure food system.
View photos from the entire event! Check out my Regenerate 2016 photography album for more pictures.
WHERE TO STAY
Throughout the Regenerate food festival, I stayed overnight at the boutique hotel, Hotel Metro. It’s centrally located in downtown London in the perfect spot, directly across the road from the Covent Garden Farmers’ Market. From check-in to check-out, I thoroughly enjoyed my stay. Ideal for business and leisure travelers alike, Hotel Metro features comfortable rooms with the best amenities.
There was complimentary Wi-Fi, a flatscreen TV with cable channels, a large working desk, and a Keurig coffee maker. Parking was offered through the hotel at a discounted rate in a secure, underground lot across the street.
The bed was comfortable and I had a great night’s sleep. The decor was modern and stylish. There were complimentary toiletries by Aveda.
I really loved being able to leave my car behind and walk everywhere I needed to be in town. The staff at the front reception warmly welcomed me to the hotel, and always greeted me with smiling faces.
32 Covent Market Place, London, Ontario
I was truly pleased to attend the Regenerate Food Festival. The event encouraged thoughtful discussions about our current food system and the ways we can move forward in the right direction. I appreciate the challenges that local farmers face and the need to unite both farmer and consumer. Although it seems like an overwhelming obstacle – to change the methods in which we distribute, purchase, and consume food – every small step counts. Whether we decide to buy from a local market or eat at a “farm to table” style restaurant, our dollars have a huge amount of influence on the market.
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Thank you so much to CK Table and Tourism London for hosting my stay.