Taking comfort in food

Sarah Smellie
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For new arrivals to Canada, having access to familiar products can help them feel at home

Wayne Smart, manager of Sobeys in Howley Estates, in the international foods aisle. — Photo by Sarah Smellie/Special to The Telegram

“When we get new arrivals to the country, one of the first things that they’re looking for is their native food,” says Lois Berrigan, settlement services manager with the Association for New Canadians in St. John’s.

“And one of the local grocery stores brings in different types of foods for us. They started doing it back when they were really small.”

Those foods include frozen samosas, paneer, chapattis, okra, frozen Indian and Pakistani entrées, medjool dates and a full range of halal products.

And that little grocery store — not so little anymore — is Sobeys, at the east end of Elizabeth Avenue in Howley Estates.

Back when the Association for New Canadians approached the grocery store with a list of international food products their clients would like, it was much smaller and located next to Canadian Tire.

“That would have been 14 years ago, so, I can’t comment on that,” says Wayne Smart, manager of Sobeys at Howley Estates.

“I do know that, previously, this store did offer a variety of ethnic foods that weren’t available at any other stores, and that it was (as a result of) a request to bring in those products. To this day, we still have some frozen products which are unique to this store and which have been requested.”

In fact, there’s an entire freezer in the produce section filled with items from the Association for New Canadians’ list.

Sobeys Howley Estates also recently expanded its international foods aisle, stocking products from the Netherlands to the Middle East.

“Our reception house, where we provide temporary accommodations for newly arrived Canadians, is in the proximity of that Sobeys,” explains Berrigan.

“So they’re introduced to that Sobeys from the very first day that they’re here. Sometimes they go back there, and sometimes they try to go shopping at stores in their own neighbourhood.”

According to Kaberi Sarma-Debnath, executive director of the Multicultural Women’s Organization of Newfoundland and Labrador, for many new immigrants, being able to find familiar foods is essential to making a home in a new place.

“Settlement is a big issue, and food is one of the most important things,” she says.

“When people migrate from their countries, they leave everything behind. But when they get a taste of their own culture’s food, it makes them feel like they’re at home. And their children, they get a taste of their own country’s food and their culture, and that’s important.”

Catching on

When Sarma-Debnath arrived in Newfoundland 20 years ago, there wasn’t much international food available, she said. But now, with the Sobeys Howley Estates and smaller stores like Belbin’s Grocery and Food for Thought, things are improving.

Other larger stores are also catching on. The Dominion on Blackmarsh Road, for example, has a well-stocked international section.

“It’s getting a bit better, but it needs to be better still,” she says.

“If anyone is bringing ethnic food, it’s such a small amount that it sells out very quickly. And I deal with people from 35 countries — it’s not possible to bring food from all of those places, but at least more varieties need to be there in the grocery stores. And it’s also very expensive.”

“For people like me, it’s OK — I’m used to the food and the diet here,” Sarma-Debnath adds.

“But people who are just new, food is one of the issues that make them want to move away from here and go to Toronto or Montreal.”

That’s no small potatoes for a province facing a labour shortage and, as reported by a 2007 Association for New Canadians study on workforce integration for immigrants, the lowest immigrant retention rate in the country.

But if the activity at Wayne Smart’s Sobeys store is any indication, things might continue to improve.

“Our international foods are selling very well,” he says. “We’ve noticed an increase in demand for the international items, both because we have more international shoppers and because customers are travelling more and trying new foods. So the products have been very well received.”



Organizations: Sobeys, Canadian Tire, Multicultural Women Organization of Newfoundland and Labrador Dominion

Geographic location: Canada, Elizabeth Avenue, Netherlands Middle East Blackmarsh Road Toronto Montreal

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Recent comments

  • Bermy
    April 27, 2012 - 19:34

    Thank you for posting Laurie...I agree with you 100%. I also lived overseas and the ignorance of (some) Newfoundlanders horrifies me. This country is born on immigrants and multiculturalism. Get with the times people and look around. This is our chance to make someone else's experience an unforgettable one. Show them the true hospitality of a Newfoundlander. Let's stand together and make this a better place for everyone!

  • mira parai
    April 26, 2012 - 14:23

    Definitely ethnic food is good to enjoy in a safe non violent country. However the supplied food comming from those countries where greedy suppliers are only looking at profit ignoring CHILD LABOR, HARMFUL PRESERVATIVES outdated products. Cosuming the delicious ethnic food which has no authenticity of Inspection and safety is good for the tongue. however may in time result extraburden on health care system paid by NEW and OLD Canadians. Example: formalin used in frozen fish from Bangladesh and Toooo good spices leading to Gastric Acid Reflux disease in ---- new and old Canadians.

  • jeffer
    April 26, 2012 - 05:09

    hey petten, keep eating those vienna sausages and purity crackers. a good ol heart attack should shut you up soon enough.

  • Sarah
    April 25, 2012 - 12:42

    Very informative article, thank you. The Food Security Network NL did a study on this topic in 2009 called Building Stronger Refugee and Immigrant Communities Through Increased Food Security. It looked at the food security situation in St. John's and Corner Brook for refugees and immigrants and part of the study focused on the ability to access foods from people's homelands. The report is here if anyone is interested in learning more: http://www.foodsecuritynews.com/Resources.htm

  • John Petten
    April 25, 2012 - 10:29

    This is hilarious. Not sure why we feel obliged to cater to "new Canadians". If we went to their countries they would make absolutely no effort to bring in vienna sausages or purity crackers... Not to mention their political ideologies and beliefs are incompatible with Canadian held values and beliefs...such as DEMOCRACY. We should take the route of France. Ban the burka, ban praying in public, and ban halal. Because it is all foolish, and incompatible with our democratic values and beliefs in Canada.

    • Laurie
      April 25, 2012 - 17:37

      Mr Petten, You seem to have an agenda that has nothing to do with this article. People like you disappoint me: diversity and multiculturalism make a society stronger. As a Newfoundlander who has spent the last 10 years living abroad I know for a fact that "their" countries do attempt to cater to foreigners. I know how hard it is to adapt to a new country and any small comforts of home help ease the transition. I happen to love the international section as Sobeys, you need to open your mind a little.