Junk food and fall fairs always seem to go hand in hand for me. I'm no zealot, but normally I'm fairly careful about what I eat. That said, I line up at fall fairs for things I'd never dream of including in my regular diet. I guess it's the atmosphere, or maybe the tradition. Or — most likely — it's what patrons want, so the fairs oblige.
The problem could also be a lack of choice, though. Sometimes food that's the most convenient is not particularly healthy.
But the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair, which runs now until Nov. 16, is changing that stigma.
The Royal, as it's popularly known, is one place where, among the predictable fast and fried offerings, you could almost always find at least some nuggets of nutrition without looking too hard.
Now, it's taking things to another level, embellishing an initiative called Journey to Your Good Health. It was started several years ago by a team led by former Ontario Agricultural College dean Dr. Rob McLaughlin, who is now the president of the fair.
Journey to Your Good Health is a huge interactive, informational pavilion in the heart of the Royal's main building, designed as a creative way for attendees to learn more about the health aspects of food — especially the homegrown kind.
McLaughlin listened to Canadian food visionaries such as Elora culinary queen Anita Stewart and renowned dietician Lois Ferguson describe a world where this nation's agriculture, food and health were inextricably linked, along with the environment and rural communities. He wanted to adapt that mindset to the Royal, arguably Canada's most important venue for driving home the farming-food-health connection, with attendance averaging 350,000 people.
To further promote healthy eating, this year the Royal is introducing the Journey Café. Further to what Stewart describes as "a shift from commodities to ingredients," chef Robert Campbell will be creating dishes that include functional foods such as Dempster's Smart Bread and Maple Lodge Classic Chicken Roast with Omega-3s.
He'll also work with functional foods from natural sources such as oats and Ontario fruits and vegetables. And there's even a takeout option for visitors who want to munch and mosey.
The pavilion will also feature food samples in a Taste Tour of Canada's Food Guide. Attendees will be guided through the four food groups at multiple booths, learning new ways to incorporate healthy foods into their diets.
Foods that can be taste-tested in the tour include high-filtered milk, granola bars and fresh, local fruits and vegetables. The healthy fats and oils display will demonstrate how easy it is to incorporate canola and other healthy oil choices into a diet.
The Journey experience also has a small performing stage — appropriately called the Be Healthy! stage — to bring food, education and entertainment together. This year, skits and presentations on the agenda are based on lean chicken, the International Year of the Potato and what's being called "super foods."
Nearby, registered dietitians will be on-site at the Ask-a-Dietitian booth to answer questions about food and health.
Finally, the Royal will feature a multi-partner marketing strategy called Grow Guelph, which highlights the life sciences and agri-food opportunities in Guelph and Wellington County. Organizers call it a way to protect and promote the region's agricultural roots, whether as a tourism destination or a new investment opportunity.
The Grow Guelph exhibit at the Royal will include displays mostly about University of Guelph-based research — building cars and other items out of biomaterials, how plants are being developed to improve health and fight disease, DNA bar coding and growing plants in space.
Elora's Stewart says the Royal underlines why it's the most exciting time ever for Canadian food. I think she's right.
The agri-food landscape has changed; the Royal is leading it, reflecting it and making it available for everyone to experience.