As a cookbook author and co-owner and chef of Vij’s and Rangoli restaurants, Meeru Dhalwala has created a highly successful career out of food. Her passion goes well beyond the kitchen, however.
Dhalwala is also the founder of Joy of Feeding, an annual fundraiser for UBC Farm. The farm, the only certified-organic one in Vancouver, is a 60-hectare living laboratory for sustainable food systems.
“My profession—food and how it is grown, raised, fished, produced, eaten, sold, et cetera—accounts for 19 percent of all greenhouse-gas emissions, which is higher than oil,” Dhalwala tells the Georgia Straight. “The research they are doing at the farm centre [Centre for Sustainable Food Systems at UBC Farm] in terms of finding sustainable ways to feed the [planet’s] actual seven billion and soon to be nine billion affordably and with environmental stewardship is potentially huge for people, animals, fish, and climate change.
“I fundraise for UBC Farm because I want Vancouver to be the world’s hub for academic farming methods and research,” she adds. “I am from an immigrant family. I care, obsessively, about climate change, and I know that nothing positive will happen in terms of climate change until we as a community bond with one another and find hope and become brave to make the necessary changes.…In order for humans to cut down the 19 percent emissions, and in order for us to cut down on our overall health-care costs, we need to be cooking at home and feeding ourselves.”
If current trajectories continue, global food demand will increase by 70 percent by 2050, according to the United Nations.
In B.C., only 2.6 million of the 4.7 million hectares of Agricultural Land Reserve are actively farmed, and the average age of farmers in this province is 56. Along with the aging farming demographic, issues of agricultural-land development and economic barriers facing new farmers are local trends that are being experienced worldwide.
Even though people are concerned about climate change and food security, Dhalwala found that there is a disconnect: we contribute to the problem when we don’t know where our food comes from or how important it is to share cultural culinary traditions.
“If we can’t hold food ingredients in our hands and know what to do with them, how will we care how they are grown, raised, salted, treated, and fished?” she asks. “If we can’t feel connected to people with different cultures, how can we care enough about our community? And who are we if we do not have an emotional connection to our families and our past?”
In 2011, Dhalwala, who is also on the board of directors for Vancouver Farmers Markets, launched Joy of Feeding with the help of Mary MacKay of Terra Breads. The fundraiser is an intergenerational, international food festival that celebrates home-cooked dishes from around the world.
Vij’s, Terra Breads, the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts, and UBC Food Services will bring together 15 home cooks of different cultural backgrounds—from the Dene Nation in the Northwest Territories to the Philippines—to offer a taste of their favourite dishes. The event showcases cultural traditions and the beauty and benefits of cooking simple, wholesome meals at home.
“Cooking is not a joy at the end of a busy day,” Dhalwala says. “It’s a pain in the butt, and now with our hyperstressed and plugged-in lives, it’s daunting. For example, I will work a nine-hour day and at 6 p.m. say, ‘Shit, what do I feed my kids tonight?’ I can’t make a time-consuming gourmet meal. I have to make something very simple and easy and, hopefully, decent-tasting.
“But if we prioritize and get the guts and willpower to spend 45 minutes cooking, the joy comes from feeding and nourishing ourselves and our family and friends and sitting at the table,” she says. “We aren’t talking about preparing gourmet meals that TV chefs make look perfect and easy. We are talking about feeding your loved ones simple and delicious meals that have family and emotional meaning.”
The people who will be cooking at Joy of Feeding are not celebrity chefs with powerful PR firms to promote their brands but local residents Dhalwala has met one way or another.
“I keep my eyes open all year round and often approach strangers and ask them where their skin colour comes from and if they cook,” she says. “I have always been greeted with a smile when I ask this question, by the way. Now there is word of mouth after five years, and people will email me with suggested people [cooks].”
Among the dishes on offer at this year’s event are a Turkish salad with green olives and roasted red bell pepper; goat curry from Sri Lanka; dulce de leche cake from Chile; glass noodle, vegetable, and beef stir-fry from South Korea; cheese pie and carrot salad from Switzerland; arancini (rice balls) from Sicily; Egyptian stuffed eggplant; Ethiopian mixed vegetables; and a Polish hunter’s stew.
There will be live music, farm tours, organic-produce stands, and interactive booths with kids’ activities. Craft beer from Bomber Brewing and wine from Sandhill Estate Vineyard will also be available. Attendees will receive a cookbook filled with recipes of the dishes served.
Joy of Feeding takes place on June 25 at UBC Farm from 5 to 8 p.m. Tickets, $55 (kids 12 and under are free), and information are available at the UBC Farm website.