With the unhealthy ambiance that’s circulating the political sphere these days, and democracy failing us in new and spectacular ways, and leadership that either can’t seem to make much progress, or willfully erodes it, I’ve been thinking of more ways that I can, as an individual, produce positive change in the world, from reducing waste to supporting and empowering local communities and business. How and where you choose to spend money can have a significant impact. Big business and corporations, despite what some may try to tell you, do little to produce happy, healthy and sustainable communities.
Food is an essential element of our survival and ensuring access is likely to be an increasing challenge as environmental degradation and global warming whittles away our natural resources. Unfortunately, a good majority of our food distribution is currently in the hands of corporations who have shown little to no sign of ethics and an extraordinary capacity for greed. Loblaws, a Canadian mega-conglomerate, owns and operates no less than 22 different grocery chains including No Frills, Valu-Mart, Zehrs, Dominion, and Fortinos. Why are they allowed to hold such an exclusive and extreme monopoly over our food? Why did the federal government give them a 12 million dollar green energy grant to convert to retrofit their fridges? I’m trying to not focus on finding answers to these questions – that seems to just lead to endless frustration. Instead, I’m trying to modify my shopping habits somewhat and make that extra effort to buy my food, whenever possible, at independent outlets that respect the food, as well as the dignity, and spirit of both its employees and the food producers.
This list is just a small example of the revolutionary, independent food communities and grocers that exists in Toronto. I’ve also kept it confined to places that operate all year long. It goes without saying there is also a ton of amazing seasonal farmer’s markets all around the city during the spring and summer months.
Fiesta Farms (200 Christie St.) – The ultimate one-stop independent grocer in Toronto. Fiesta Farms may look very utilitarian from the outside, and it’s not flashy on the inside either, but the incredible diversity and range of products has no parallel elsewhere in Toronto. As they say on their website, they sell it all “without pomp.” The focus is on the food here, not the store’s branding or prestige factor – which is not to say that they aren’t popular. Weekends can get especially nuts, but, unlike a lot of grocery stores these days (I’m looking at you Whole Foods…) this store excels at keeping everything incredibly well-stocked. If there’s a new product you’re struggling to find, you’re likely to find it at Fiesta Farms. Their international aisle is the best stocked in the city and has some notoriously difficult to find items. The aisles are well organized, and the staff is friendly and helpful.
Essence of Life (50 Kensington Ave.) – I’ve been shopping at Essence of Life for many years, and though I don’t live as close as I once did, I still drop by whenever I’m in the neighborhood to stock up on essentials. There is a lot packed into a relatively small space, and there is always something new to discover and perhaps most notably, they’re one of the most affordable spots for organic goods and nutritional supplements. The aisles are famously narrow, so plan a visit outside of peak hours to avoid the human traffic jam. There’s not a huge produce section, but it’s Kensington Market/Chinatown, so there are lots of fruit and veggie vendors close-by.
Tutti Frutti (64 Kensington Ave.) – Like their neighbour, Essence of Life, Tutti Frutti manages to cram a lot into a very confined space. They have a solid selection of organic dry goods and vegan provisions. My favorite part of the store is the impressive selection of bulk loose leaf teas, many of which are quite rare.
The Big Carrot (348 Danforth Ave.) – The Big Carrot is not just a grocery store – it’s a vibrant community hub with a civic-minded focus on delivery the best of local and organic food. In addition to its grocery departments, The Carrot Commons, as the collection of various business is called, has a wholistic dispensary, a juice bar, a hot food bar, and a green roof. It’s also a co-op, which means it’s completely worker-owned. I just discovered while writing this article that there is now a second location in The Beaches – I had no idea!
Organic Garage (43 Junction Road, 42 Hanna Ave.) Organic Garage has two locations in downtown Toronto, with a third scheduled to open in Leaside in 2020, plus stores in Oakville and Thornhill. Strictly speaking, that makes it a grocery chain, but I feel like as a company they embody a similar spirit to the other more independent places on this list. Their slogan is Healthier for Less, and it’s true – their prices are some of the more reasonable in the city for organic produce. Their stock is pretty comprehensive, so it’s a definitely a one-stop shopping kind of destination.
Qi Natural Foods/Herbs and Nutrition (506 Queen St West, 572 Bloor Street West) – Qi Natural Foods has been around for a while (since 1999 in fact), and there are few stores that can claim that kind of durability in Toronto’s tough and fickle market. When I lived on Ronscevalles it was one of my favorite places to shop for pantry needs. Unfortunately, that location appears to have closed, but the Queen Street store remains as does the Eglinton branch, but the real gem is their Annex’s offspring, Herbs and Nutrition, a spacious outlet full of natural health products, and frozen and fresh goods. There’s even a substantial bulk section.
Good Rebel (1591 Dundas West) – We Toronto vegans really are spoiled. Way back when I first became vegan, there was already an entirely vegan grocery store called Panacea. Panacea closed some time ago, but now there is Good Rebel, a Dundas West emporium that sells pretty much every kind of vegan product you can possibly imagine. In addition to their substantial pantry supplies and a small produce section, they also sell fresh croissants, danishes, and sandwiches, but the highlight for many will be the cheese fridge – yes, that’s right there’s an entire section devoted to plant-based cheeses!
The Sweet Potato (108 Vine Ave) – I remember shopping at The Sweet Potato when they were still in Dundas West location, and while they certainly they made the most of that modest space, their massive new warehouse, just a bit north of their previous home, has really allowed them to flourish. It’s an impressive food shrine, rivaling the best of the city’s grocery stores, with a huge selection of local and organic produce, and natural products. This is the kind of place you could spend a whole afternoon just wandering and exploring their tidy and well-organized aisles.
Wholesome Market (2234 Queen St. East) – This east end institution has been selling high-quality produce, organic groceries and health provisions in the Beach Village for many years. The store’s ambiance reflects their community-driven ethos – it has a small-town, friendly and approachable vibe to it – the very antithesis of the big corporate grocery chains.
Raise the Root (1164 Queen St. East) A small but notable Leslieville establishment, with a curated and seasonal selection of fruits and vegetables as well as a solid collection of vegan essentials (i.e. ice cream). The east end has a reputation for being a bit of a food desert in terms of the number of grocery stores in each neighbourhood – the truth is that I think the east end is just much more resistant to the idea of big chains. There are a lot of great stores like the Raise the Root but they focus on the quality of the food, and the community impact rather than pure profit.
Fresh City Farms (111 Ossington Avenue) Fresh City Farm originally made their mark in the G.T.A. with a delivery service, bringing fresh, organic produce, groceries, and prepared meals right to your door. Now they’ve struck out into the brick and mortar grocery business with a small, but noteworthy outlet on the incessantly hip Ossington strip. Their two-acre farm itself is located at Downsview Park and is a hub for a whole host of farm-related activities and educational resources. Another location is slated to open at Bay and Gerrard soon!
St. Lawrence Market (93 Front St. East) – The indomitable food fortress of Toronto, a tourist hotspot, foodie’s paradise, and a recognized international destination, St. Lawrence Market remains one of the best places to grocery shop in the city. The number of animal carcasses on display will definitely be a bit off-putting for vegans/vegetarians, but this place is also fruit and veggie haven, plus there is a large selection of dry goods, bulk products, fresh-baked bread and vegan-friendly vendors like Ying Ying Soy Food.
4 Life Natural Foods (210 Augusta Ave.) – 4 Life Natural Foods has some of the most beautiful, albeit expensive, produce I’ve ever seen. Truthfully, the price point is a bit impractical, especially as this is Kensington Market, not Yorkville, but 4 Life has been a staple in the neighborhood for a long time and the owner is thoroughly dedicated to the community – the extra money is going to delivering exceptional quality and to support the local economy. It’s also a fairly large store, and there are a lot of treasures to be discovered in among their goods.
Healthy Planet (568 Danforth Avenue & others) – Healthy Planet has 28 locations all over Southern Ontario, but it all started with a small kiosk on Danforth Avenue. While they are more well known for their selection of supplements and other health-related peripherals, the Danforth location, which has expanded far beyond kiosk size, also has a huge grocery selection and their prices are very reasonable.