It takes a village to raise a neighbourhood grocery store, I’ve always figured.
So I went to hear Mary Choi deliver the valedictory address to her graduating class of naturopathic doctors, thinking I would share the joy of her mom and dad, Suzie and Charlie Choi, who run our area’s mom-and-pop grocery, the Beach Food Mart.I was also intrigued by the poetic irony of a grocer’s daughter becoming a naturopathic physician, honouring food’s humble healing powers at the highest level of professional responsibility and a testimony to the food sector’s role in the Canadian Dream as a stepping stone for socially mobile immigrants.
The irony, it turns out, was on me, because my sense of drama was obsolete and based on the Canadian Dream as lived before the 1970s. Like Suzie Choi, who trained as a nurse in Korea, and Charlie Choi, who came as an engineer, many immigrants to Canada since the 1970s experience downward mobility.
The rebound upwards happens with the kids, which is why child-oriented social policies are so crucial in a multicultural country.
These are barely noticed, largely because universal medicare gets all the limelight. We miss all the other government initatives that make for improved lives.
I test Mary Choi on her knowledge of these subtle policies over a long Sunday-afternoon coffee at a patio near Kew Beach Park, kitty-corner from her parents’ store.
“Do you know where Bart and Homer Simpson shop for food?” I ask her.
“At a Kwik-E-Mart,” she answers immediately.
Exactly. Ontario still has full-service mom-and-pop grocery stores, commonly owned and managed by immigrants, providing pedestrian access to healthy and affordable foods on most main streets – something very few American cities enjoy, as anyone who watches The Simpsons knows.
We have these outlets in both affluent and less affluent neighbourhoods courtesy of a little-known publicly owned institution, the Ontario Food Terminal.
For a yearly fee of $200, a local grocer who has no warehouse, no storage space, no contacts or large-?order contracts with growers in California or Florida can go down early in the morning and buy a day’s worth of fresh, top-quality produce at wholesale prices that are about the lowest on the continent.
If it weren’t for the Terminal, giant supermarkets would monopolize all grocery retail, and convenience stores would be the only food sellers on main streets.
Mary Choi knows this first-hand. “I drank my first coffee at 12, sitting in the truck with my dad when he went for a pickup at the Food Terminal,” she says.
The Beach neighbourhood, like most in Ontario, also has under-recognized institutions that give the children of hardworking parents a leg up. The library right across the street from her parents’ store “was my favourite place to be,” she says, where she and her younger sister went to play games, hear librarians read aloud or just read in a safe, bright and spacious place that offered the world’s best books for free.
When not at the library, the Choi sisters could also be found at the Beaches Recreation Centre, where swimming, first aid and babysitting lessons all were offered for free.
“That’s where I first learned the skill set for emergency paramedic aid,” she says.
Those who would understand the superior public safety of Canadian cities, and why Toronto is “the city that works,” should appreciate the hidden social role libraries and rec centres perform and think about avoiding cuts to such programs.
Despite what’s widely thought about the division of powers at local, provincial and federal levels, the most important social policy needs to be close to home.
Like most people of Asian ancestry, Choi didn’t learn to appreciate the herbal traditions of naturopathic medicine through the counterculture. Herbology is part of the dominant tradition throughout most of Asia, often taught side by side with pharmaceutically based Western medicine.
The turning point in Choi’s life came at age 22 when she was treated with radiation for thyroid cancer, and got a full dose of treatment methods that leave you feeling “lost and out of control.” She celebrated her return to health with a year’s volunteering for a sports program in Africa, where the everyday combination of fresh air, exercise and organic food convinced her to train as a naturopath.
Her graduation speech reflected these life-changing experiences, emphasizing the centrality of “authentic” treatment strategies that offer more than diagnoses and prescriptions.
“People want the feeling of empowerment and not to feel they are in the hands of someone else,” she says.
Mary Choi learned these lessons as an adult, on her own, in faraway neighbourhoods. But as a child, she needed a community closer to home.
The rite of spring known as convocation, when we celebrate a new crop of tens of thousands of bright-?eyed youths setting out to make their own way, is a time to mark all these points on the learning spectrum, and to appreciate how much our traditions of egalitarianism need to be protected.