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Q. Dear Umbra,

I am a new (one-year) vegetarian and need more info about the foods I am eating. I live in Ontario and am looking for information about food industries in Canada. Any help finding information online would be greatly appreciated.

Thank you,
Carol Pasechnick

Canada product.O Canada! Photo: Alan ChanA. Dearest Carol,

Welcome to the meatless world! I’m sure other vegetarian Gristers would give you a high-five through the computer screen if possible. Animals, your arteries, and our air thank you (and that’s just the letter A). Way to dig your teeth into the story behind your food rather than simply swapping your hot dogs for soy dogs. (Soy’s got problems of its own, like genetic engineering, although it does use about half the environmental resources that meat does.)

So you’re interested in Canada-specific vegetarian info. First off, let me say that in spite of recent election results up there, I’m a huge fan of you northern neighbors. Your dear country first sounded the alarm about tainted peanuts a couple of years ago, and Canada doesn’t allow cows to be fed ethanol waste (a practice that likely contributes to E. coli problems). Frito Lay Canada didn’t can the biodegradable SunChips bag design that was pulled from shelves as “too noisy” in the States (apparently up there, they trust shoppers to understand the bag’s environmental benefits outweigh its more audible crinkles). And significantly, your health department led the world in declaring BPA toxic — and so the chemical will be phased out of canned food and beverage linings. One wishes the U.S. would follow suit.

In less pleasant news, a new initiative may bring Canada’s food standards down to America’s level. The food standards are being “harmonized” to speed up food trade between the countries. Ick. (The Vancouver Sun has much more on that.)

For now, let’s find you some good resources to chew on. If you want pure statistics, here’s a rundown of the data (a taste: over 70 percent of food in Canadian grocery stores was made domestically; a wee 2 percent of Canucks lived on farms in 2006). The Canadian Food Inspection Agency‘s site has basic info about food recalls and tainted products. The Ottawa arm of the Center for Science and Public Interest fights for better nutrition standards, less junk-food advertising for kids, and other very worthy causes, so give them a look. And although you aren’t in Toronto, check out the site for the Toronto Food Policy Council, which is doing some impressive work to promote food security (food genius Tom Philpott deemed it “groundbreaking”).

There’s also the Eat Well Guide for Canada and the U.S., which has 124 listings for farmers markets, CSAs, sustainability-minded restaurants, and the like in Ontario alone. You might be interested in Canada’s Local Food Plus, which certifies sustainable food producers and connects them with shoppers. And I’ll throw in sustainable food blog The Mindful Table, which is focused on Montréal but has a section on Ontario too.

You may also glean some tasty nuggets from the printed word, like these essential veggie cookbooks: Laurel’s Kitchen, Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, and How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. (Here are more of my cookbook recommendations.) Most of all, try to buy local, seasonal, and organic — and don’t put too much pressure on yourself if you slip up and eat fish once in a while. Remember, there’s always Bacon Salt.

Carol, good luck on your quest to investigate your food, and have fun getting creative in the kitchen!

Meatlessly,
Umbra