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Joshna Maharaj is an advocate of consuming fresh, locally grown food. ‘Food is our life force. It’s the fuel we need to live, grow and thrive, and we need to pay more attention to it.’

JENNIFER ROBERTS/The Globe and Mail

Joshna Maharaj wants to turn Toronto into a foodtopia.

The self-described food activist strongly believes that Canada's biggest city can lead the country in advancing a government-backed food strategy to benefit all its citizens.

Maharaj's vision involves the creation of food-friendly neighbourhoods where locally grown produce would feed and nurture their own communities: the 100-yard diet, if you will.

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To make this happen, Maharaj, chef-in-residence at the Jackman Humanities Institute at the University of Toronto, has lobbied municipal government, backed by Toronto Public Health, the Toronto Food Policy Council, fellow chefs and other members of the city's food and hospitality industry. "Food is the most relevant and effective way to nurture strong, healthy, happy communities while still being a source of pure joy," she says.

Her latest mission is hospital food reform – in particular the imported, frozen, notoriously unappetizing meals hospitals routinely serve to patients.

Maharaj started working with Scarborough Hospital in 2011 to overhaul patient menus, advocating that they be made of fresh produce grown and harvested by Ontario farmers in the belief that good food is the best medicine there is.

Last year, she moved on to Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, supported by a grant from the Greenbelt Foundation, where she gave seminars on the benefits of fresh and wholesome food to hospital employees.

Maharaj's zeal for helping others through food started with a degree in religious studies, which the 37-year-old South African native who immigrated to Canada in 1978, obtained from McMaster University in Hamilton.

Upon graduation in 2000, she moved briefly to India to live on an ashram, where she was invited to work in the kitchen. It was a life-changing moment.

Returning to Canada, she enrolled in cooking school, and has never looked back.

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Her first job was at The Stop Community Food Centre, which provides front-line food services to the community through drop-ins, food banks, communal bake ovens and urban agriculture supported by state-of-the art greenhouses.

With her reputation as a food activist launched, Maharaj has gone on to serve on the steering committee of local fruit-picking organization, Not Far From The Tree, and to appear as a regular guest on CBC's Steven and Chris show.

She is an active food blogger who describes herself as a very busy person. And for good reason.

Until locally produced, sustainable food becomes the entrenched right of every person in the land, she will not rest.

"Food is our life force. It's the fuel we need to live, grow and thrive, and we need to pay more attention to it," Maharaj declares.

"We need to set some higher collective priorities around food, and remember that good food policy implicitly also means good agriculture policy, good health policy, good economic policy and good environmental policy."

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