Taking comfort in food

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

Published on April 25, 2012
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.”