Wayne Roberts, the Canadian food activist, writer, and unequalled lover of life passed away early the morning of January 20th. Seems only right, I guess, that one luminous northern star would fade on the same day that America’s four years of darkness would give way to an effulgence of hope and light. I’m sure Wayne didn’t plan it that way, but there’s something in the timing that can’t be denied; that maybe his ineffable being, a soul that kept all who knew him merry and optimistic, flickered just long enough to help us Americans find our way to higher ground.
I quickly filled an old, large envelope fished out of the recycling bin with memories of Wayne (I heard him chastise me for even thinking about scribbling notes on a fresh legal pad). The remembrance that immediately rose to the top concerned our trip together to South Korea. As part of an international delegation to advise cities on sustainable food practices and policies, we found ourselves early one morning, jet-lagged, wandering the streets of Suncheon, a city at the very southern end of the Korean peninsula. Lost in conversation and succumbing to chronic giggling syndrome (CGS) – a condition in which you often found yourself when in Wayne’s company – we soon discovered that we were hopelessly lost. Without a non-Asian nor English-speaking person in sight, Wayne stopped the first Korean who crossed our path to ask directions to our hotel. Not understanding a word of English, the man stared at us blankly causing Wayne to ask him the same question in Spanish, to which the poor fellow appeared equally dumbfounded. When I asked Wayne why he used Spanish, he said, “It’s the only foreign language I know.”
Countless friends and colleagues will no doubt sit around the campfire and regale each other with Wayne stories long into the night. Their mirth will rise like the fire’s dancing embers setting off rolling claps of heavenly applause among the night time spirits. But as much as his joy has filled our lives to bursting, I count myself equally fortunate to have benefitted from his instruction, fueled as it was by his sense of urgency that we get right with our food system. As the head of the Toronto Food Policy Council, certainly one of the most successful bodies of its kind in the world, Wayne would bestow upon me – as he did with all he worked – tips, insights, and lessons-learned. As an early practitioner in the evolving art of food policy councils, I would soak up every drop of Wayne’s wisdom in hopes of making my own council in Hartford, Connecticut shine with as much luster and abundance as Toronto’s.
As an early and surprisingly older adapter of social media, Wayne would continually harangue me to use it as avidly as he did. While not sharing his enthusiasm for its power and reach, I would nevertheless try to heed his advice – cursing him in the process – and push my reluctant, Luddite self further. Sharing hotel rooms at conferences and Community Food Security Coalition meetings (Wayne was a dedicated CFSC board member), he was always generous with his advice on life, love, and difficult personalities. Those rooms, now scrubbed clean, I hope, of every remnant of politically incorrect male behavior, reverberated with an intoxicating mix of jubilation and profound lessons. If the holiness of someone’s love is best revealed by the depth of their listening, then Wayne may very well have walked on water.
As much as he was a world-class talker, Wayne was equally committed to putting his words on paper. We both held a passion for writing, not only as a way to share our learnings with the growing food movement, but to give full throat to our creative yearnings. My then-wife, Pam Roy, and I gave Wayne a place for a writer’s retreat during the winter of 2007 in Santa Fe. He used the time to pen The No-Nonsense Guide to World Food (New Internationalist Publications), a pithy and pocket-size extrapolation of Wayne’s world-wanderings, practice, and research. It gleans what truth he could from a global food system teetering dangerously close to collapse, and prods us to take action. Though he may have possessed the persona of a jokester, Wayne’s talks and writings made you pay attention, like your life – and the life of the planet – depended on it. And they gave you hope, as in these lines from No-Nonsense: “Food is most challenging to people with a Modernist upbringing because warming to food is about warming to this humility, this awareness of the oneness and connectedness of, and responsibility to, all beings. This is what food system redesign is nurtured by and grows on. It’s hopeful, it’s positive, it’s fun….”
Wayne’s generosity knew no borders. It flowed unchecked across international boundaries with an ease unnoticed by security, but always appreciated in Detroit, London, or Seoul. His heartfelt, always present presence will be sorely missed. Like Hamlet speaking of his childhood mentor, Yoric, “…a fellow of infinite jest, of utmost fancy,” we will also ask, “Where are your gibes…your gambols…your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar?” I will answer by saying they are still there as a reminder to us all that a passion for justice and sustainability can walk hand-in-hand with love and humor. That was Wayne’s way; let’s celebrate his life by making it ours as well.