1. I was conceived during a new year’s break in 1944, when my dad was on leave from the Air Force during World War 11.
Although I’m often called a “post-war baby boomer,” I beat the boom by several years, and was therefore more in touch with the high hopes and idealism of the War, and less influenced by the easier affluence that later boomers enjoyed.
In the absence of convenience food and TV, I grew up with good but simple home-cooked food eaten around a very cheerful table — still precious memories for me. I absorbed a mood that hard work and fun times went together, which accounts for the fact that I’m a prankster who insists on good cheer to this day. And I’ve never lost my childhood faith that people and governments can mobilize to accomplish great things and overcome destructive forces.
2. Both my parents were super-bright, but had their dreams for education dashed by the 1930s Depression, which forced each of them to quit school at 14. They got their first break when the government offered war veterans the choice of free university or a half-acre of land to build their own home, with enough of a lot to grow their own food.
They took the half-acre and started building their own home, which still wasn’t finished when I moved out; that was the installment plan of those days – add a room when the money was saved. This model of government programs — giving poor people resources to make their own opportunities — is deep in my bones, and accounts for the stress I put today on enabling programs that give people the tools and resources they need to help themselves.
3. Almost all the people I grew up with on Oakridge Drive in Scarboro were from veterans’ families like mine. Talk about salt of the earth! Someone had a block party of some kind every week. The moms had coffee every day. If anyone ran out of food, they opened your door and shouted out “I’m borrowing your sugar.” I didn’t learn to lock car or house doors until I left home. These memories explain my support for “neighbourhood-based food infrastructure” in the Toronto Food Strategy.
Almost all the families on our street built their own homes, helping each other when the work required more skill or strength than dad, mom and kids. The “can-do” and “we’re in this together” feel and assumption of those days seem so far away from the “can’t do” and “what’s this got to do with me” assumptions of today, but my childhood experience of “let’s roll up our sleeves and do it” continues to determine my first reaction to any problem.
4. Typical of Depression-era youth, my parents were on the far left of politics. I was what was called a “red diaper baby.” This accounts for my instinctive readiness to take on the rich and powerful on behalf of the disadvantaged. I’m pretty happy with that upbringing, but it made me a late learner in terms of the Big Thinkers who framed my recent thinking on the importance of spirituality and meaningful personal relations within social change movements.
As in most families of that era, it was assumed that I would have some kind of part-time job at a young age. I tried but didn’t like being a newspaper delivery boy. But in grade 7, I began working Saturdays on bicycle delivery for Caruso’s grocery store for 50 cents an hour – 15 cents an hour more than the more prestigious job of bicycle delivery of orders from the drugstore next door. A premonition that I would end up in the food biz?
5. I was a happy but relatively shy and undistinguished kid. My gang in high school was called the Knaves — all mischief-makers. I am pleased enough with the results that I believe parenting in the early years is mainly about making kids happy; that’s probably why I emphasize relationships around food, friends and play as more important to good parenting than providing electronic gizmoes and extra cramming courses designed to give kids an edge in school and career – rather than an edge in life.
6. I finished high school with a 75.7 average, enough to squeak into Toronto’s Glendon College with free tuition. Governments of those days believed in investing in human capital – they paid for our education when we needed help, and we repaid with higher taxes for the rest of our lives when we were making good money; that was the deal. It’s a win-win deal that I still believe in; I see food as a place where people and governments can learn to make such winning deals again.
Glendon was a small college that transformed me into a person in love with Big Ideas because so many profs gave so generously of their time. I believe neither I nor others would ever have found my hidden abilities in a bigger, more anonymous setting, and so I instantly understood Small is Beautiful in later years.
I just had a vivid reminder of the spirit of those years when Lori and I dropped off our daughter at King’s College in Halifax in the midst of Hurricane Earl. The mood of the students was so upbeat and they made such fun of teaming up to get new students into residence during the storm that it reminded me how team spirit can turn a lot of tough things into a blast. Unfortunately, our society leaves most people facing hard times to deal with their lack of goods and services in “quiet desperation” on their own, instead of sponsoring projects that support positive, uplifting group-based actions that build solutions.
My commitment to “bread and roses too” in dealing with the needs of people in need/people with ability comes from youthful experiences such as that.
7. In 1965, I won a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship that I could take anywhere in the world. I chose Berkeley, California, where I got an MA in history and a real education in mass protest actions. Just before returning to Toronto in 1967, I participated in weeks of struggles for Peoples Park, which put urban ag on the activist agenda on par with the more rural back to the land movement. I loved my life in Berkeley so much that I didn’t return until 2009 for fear I would be disappointed. How silly of me.
Ever since my years there, I’ve enjoyed working with American activists, admired their spunk, righteous outrage and zest, and have tried to import some of that spirit into Canada.
8. I returned to Toronto to study Canadian history at U of Toronto and moved into married student housing. When the landlord, Ontario Housing Corp, tried to build stores on the children’s playspace, tenants with young kids protested, and I got involved. Before long, I was leading about 600 families in the biggest and longest rent strike in Canadian history. When stores were eventually built on the playspace some years later, the compromise was that outdoor space was provided on the roof over the stores — one of the first uses of rooftops for green space. That memory stayed with me and helps explain my ready championing of green roofs 20 years later in the early 1990s.
9. I got my PhD in Canadian history in 1978 with a thesis on the Canadian labour movement of the early 1900s when many workers were still artisans. I found their pride in their craft and their involvement in society very appealing — they seemed so much like my dad and uncle — admiration which carried over into my food years when I have championed the rebirth of artisanal work methods and values in the emerging local and sustainable food system.
10. I had always looked forward to being a dad, but my experiences with Jaime, born in 1978, exceeded all my fantasies. She really awoke my emotional side, legitimized my playful side and nurtured my sense of the importance of protecting the future, all of which have helped me understand the deeper meaning of the environmental, sustainability and food movements. Jaime was not an sound sleeper, and many’s the night I spent an hour with her at 2:00 in the morning, watching TV and holding back the tears as I watched the baby-centred ads for donations to fight world hunger; it takes a child to raise a world of village-scale compassion.
Lori and I just became “empty nesters” in the fall of 2010 when my second daughter, Anika, went to university in Nova Scotia. That means I’ve been an active dad for 32 years, a long stretch, which has kept me young in spirit and given me a deep sense of the importance of parenting — and the importance of food and mealtime to a society that supports parenting, the joyful commensality of the table and a sense of familial connection to the well-being of all.
11. In the late-1970s, I had a dream job as the first academic teaching mainstream university courses in Canada’s first labour studies programme, at McMaster U in Hamilton. Hamilton had a smart, activist and socially conscious labor movement which I enjoyed working with, and did a lot of writing about. But I got bitten by the prospect of freelance and popular writing at a time when universities were stodgier about that than they are now, and so left for greener fields in 1982.
12. I had some great freelance gigs that gave me the equivalent of two post-graduate degrees. I got into radio broadcasting and did a nationally-syndicated weekly column of mini-documentaries for CBC Radio morning shows called “Rank and File,” and a long series on social history with the great Peter Gzowski of Morningside. That’s where I learned to write in a style and with an attitude I used to call “disco populism,” and where I learned the importance of story-telling to make a point — a style and attitude I still work at. With the help of producer Karen Levine, I learned that our job was not to educate, expose, radicalize or rant, but to communicate to millions of ordinary people through stories they could figure out an analysis of by themselves — as in the media rule “show don’t tell.” That’s why the powerpoints I use in talks today always feature pictures, not text, and why my pictures evoke empowering stories, not analysis.
Some people in the Ontario labor ministry liked the popular touch of my CBC columns, and that landed me a dream job as editor of a magazine called Quality of Working Life, which promoted Swedish-style industrial democracy – it’s still hard to believe that a North American government would ever do that. That’s where I learned the importance of social and workplace engagement to good decisions, mental health and vibrant democracy — which I now see as one of the social mandates of the food movement. It’s also where I learned about “turbulent environments” and “chaos theory” that require deep-going “deliberative democracy,” which I also see the food movement as fostering — especially through food policy councils.
13. While working for the government, I re-met my boyhood friend, John, the labour ministry librarian, who got me active in the union of civil servants to support James Clancy, a grassroots candidate for union president with a deep commitment to social and community unionism. Starting in 1984, I worked as Clancy’s assistant, and had a front-row seat on some huge shake-ups and positive changes for free speech of civil service whistleblowers, equal pay for women, employment equity for people with disabilities, protection of people released from psychiatric hospitals and institutions for people with mental disabilities, workplace health and safety, boycotts of apartheid-South African products in Ontario institutions, and more – including a major legal campaign to defend union rights to take active roles in social causes, a three-year battle that pitted us against the far-right National Citizens’ Coalition and their lawyer, Steven Harper.
Through this intense union experience, I learned how to think about issues as a negotiator and problem-solver, and to work through difficult changes with a combination of conflict and cooperation. I also learned to learn how to develop messages that intervened in — not just commented on or analyzed — today’s issues, and to advance what we used to call a “transitional program” to allow people to deal with an issue as they saw it, while opening themselves up to more deep-going solutions in the long run. This training made me the kind of food animator I am today.
14. Union work was all-consuming and exhausting, and when Jaime turned 10, the peak of the golden years of youth, I wanted to bank as many good times and as much quality time as I could before the teen years set in. So I left the union to become a freelancer. I wrote a weekly column for NOW Magazine, Toronto’s alternative paper (my editor was my ex-, Ellie Kirzner) and three books on labor history and politics by 1993. As things turned out, those were my last projects connected to the leftie politics of my youth.
The political and personal direction of my life unintentionally changed as a result of my dream of sending my kids to have the experience of wilderness camping, which I had missed out on due to financial limits of my family. In the late-80s, I sent Jaime to a camp in Temagami in northern Ontario; to be nearby in case of any homesickness problems, I went canoeing up there with an old work friend, Shea Hoffmitz, and totally fell in love with the area — home to the last old-growth pine forest in North America and site of spectacular wilderness canoeing. The next summer, I heard there was going to be a blockade to stop logging in the park, and I headed off to be arrested. Red Squirrel Road in Temagami’s old growth became my road to Damascus.
15. While arguing with a logger at the blockade, I decided it would be my life’s work to develop an economic strategy that provided good jobs in a green economy to workers facing unemployment as a result of green priorities. I became negotiator for the blockaders, and we tabled a decent alternative economic plan for the region to some senior government officials, which may have helped convince the government to cancel further logging.
After that, I worked with Helen Armstrong and Greenpeace to develop a green jobs alternative that would make it possible to end uranium mining in Saskatchewan. We worked first to develop relations with Saskatchewan peace and health activists so we wouldn’t be seen as typical Greenpeace outsiders coming into an area to slam the local yokels get a media hit. I had the great pleasure of joining leading anti-nuclear organizer Nette Wiebe, in the cab of her combine as she took her first drive handling a combine, and we talked for about two hours in a hot dry cab filled with wheat dust, talking about how healthy farming could form the basis of a new economy. Later, Helen, my wife Lori, and I joined an occupation in northern Saskatchewan with Rod Murphy, the mayor of a Metis town called Green Lake. The occupation was a protest against government moves to privatize services in the North, and it gave me the opportunity to develop a relationship with Rod, one of the most respected leaders of the Metis community in the Saskatchewan North, by serving as his negotiator with the government — very exciting times, though a visionary deal we worked up with the NDP government tragically went off the rails.
That’s where I really got a chance to think about how a green economy could create jobs galore and liberate people, while also saddling people with responsibilities they had to be prepared for. I’ve championed the growth of NGO’s ever since, since they are schools for learning how to lead and manage solutions, not just campaign against problems.
The recession of the early 1990s hit Ontario very hard, and the social democratic premier put out a call on TV asking people for advice – should we cut services or cut the debt, he wanted to know. I worked with prominent Liberal environmentalist Gary Gallon, well-known New Democrat city politician Jack Layton, and heroic Greenpeace founder Bob Hunter to form a Coalition for a Green Economic Recovery to lobby for a plan that created 100,000 new conservation jobs saving the government money and protecting the environment. There was no need to choose between going into debt and keeping services; we could fashion a win-win solution for the environment and economy, we argued. The very brashness of this claim made a huge splash and two major proposals were almost immediately adopted — one by the city (an energy efficiency office) and one by the province (a green communities project). Then the New World Order of government staying out of the economy took hold, and the lean, mean days for greens of the mi-90s began in dead earnest.
16. In 1992, my daughter Anika was born, and that grounded me in two ways — kept me home while my wife worked a nightshift as a prominent national radio broadcaster, and returned me to the delights of raising a little girl. I got very enthusiastic about breastfeeding, which I somehow linked into the kind of direct action for a green economy that people can take when they work on food issues. The enthusiasm for breast-feeding is prominent in my 1995 book, Get a Life! and in our 1998 book, Real Food for a Change.
This emotional experience of parenting, plus several meetings with Steve Hall, a student of social ecologist Murray Bookchin, got me going down the road of a green economy based on zestful direct action on the local scene — without much reliance on either Big Government or Big Business. Don’t ask what government can do for you, but what you can do without government, I used to say. That spirit led me, with Susan Brandum, to write and self-publish “Get a Life! How to make a good buck, dance around the dinosaurs and save the world while you’re at it” in 1995. For the next five years, I tried to make a living by selling, speaking on and consulting or teaching about that book. The book is still too far ahead of the times, but it shows my out-of-the-box thinking, my can-do, just-do-it, if-life-gives-you-a lemon-make-lemonade approach – what used to be called attitude — that became the foundation of my reputation in both the environmental and food movements.
17. My wife Lori worked an evening shift, which was rough on her, me and Anika. As we were casting about for options, we got to talking with Rod MacRae about doing a food version of Get a Life; next thing, we had a contract and advance with Random House, Lori quit her job, Wally Seccombe invested in us, and we were off to the races with a new tri-authored book, “Real Food for a Change.” Lori had always been into food but became a green, I was green and became a foodie, and Rod was a leading food wonk who became brash. I probably changed more than anyone as a result of working on the book. I gained a sense of the spiritual connections that food tapped into. Food also offered me a way to think of people exercizing their power through government by voting, but also through their local economy by buying, through their communities by sharing and co-producing, and within themselves by taking power and responsibility.
Real Food for a Change got rave reviews and sold okay, but nowhere near enough to justify the lack of steady income for Lori and me during two years of work on the book, so both Lori and I needed jobs pronto. Just then, by sheer luck, Rod left his job at the Toronto Food Policy Council, I applied for it, got it and was given the opportunity to be a fulltime food activist on the government payroll. If that job hadn’t come along, I could have ended up anywhere. Do you see why I consider myself an accidental foodie?
18. I was walking on air when I started at the TFPC and never lost my sense that the job, and what it allowed me to do, was a blessing. Consequently, I was a Dr. Polyanna and wasn’t prepared to take much grumbling, which alienated me from the civil service and leftie culture. “We’re the most blessed people in history and across the world, so find a way to do something” was my attitude.
I found a way to act on this approach by making food the key word in food policy. There are slim pickings for anyone who wants to work on policy to move government policy these days, but food gives the chance to work with individual champions and inspired groups and drag government along by the hair — bootstrap social policy, I call it. I practiced that for most of my ten years at the TFPC, going wherever I was invited and working with anyone willing to do something real and positive. I got away with this because of a fabulous office manager, Leslie Toy, two terrific citizen chairs of the TFPC, Kathryn Scharf and Janice Etter, a Council made up of madcaps and geniuses, and several higher-ups who saved me from myself and others, and allowed me to get away with begging for forgiveness, not asking for permission — Connie C, Barbara E, Liz J, Mary-Anne M, Carol T and the late great Dr. Sheela Basrur. At my retirement party, Kathryn said the city had provided a “wayne-shaped space.”
I was surrounded by women in those days — two daughters and a wife at home, a woman editor at NOW, mostly women staff at Toronto Public Health, mostly women leaders of the food movement, and women taking bootcamp workout classes at the gym after work. How this affected me I’m not sure, but I am sure I owe a lot to this. When I was a grad student, I wrote a lot about maternal feminism –- one of my articles was called “Rocking the World for the Cradle” — which was really about my mom, a leader of Voice of Women; she had a loving mother’s view of social and peace issues, quite a tribute to her, because she was orphaned at 14 years of age, and I guess that’s how she knew what it meant to have a society that was properly mothered. I have an intuition that the modern food movement is a 21st century expression of maternal feminism.
The TFPC resulting from these multiple energy sources was quirky, but we moved mountains — or at least big hills. The TFPC became one of the leading groups of the new food movement, respected around the world, and responsible for many of he food councils elsewhere in North America. For our Toronto impact, check out “Cultivating Food Connections,” the Medical Officer of Health’s report, finalized just a few weeks before I retired — there’s nothing quite that comprehensive but doable anywhere else.
19. In 2002, I was chosen as the Canadian rep of grassroots groups at the World Food Summit in Rome — a life-changing experience. Until then, I’d always been very North American in my travel and thinking. In Rome, I met the global south — heroic peasant leaders who had suffered torture and dire poverty, unlike me, and people who were angrily opposed to organic and food security and militantly for the new concept of food sovereignty.
This was my second Road to Damascus, and I pledged to always include a global element in my work — if we don’t understand why we must deal include those most in need, we don’t understand the depth or breadth of the movement, I realized. As a result, I worked with Amber McNair and James Kuhns to publish foodforethought.net/ to develop new thinking on global food policy, and tried to turn World Food Day into an annual event in Toronto and elsewhere.
I also teamed up with the brilliant and charismatic Michael Sacco, founder of ChocoSol and his visionary mentor, Gustavo Esteva. My family toured rural Mexico with them, collecting local chocolate, coffee and spices from a traditional Indigenous village in Oaxaca, and learning from the Zapatista – for whom Gustavo was an important mentor and negotiator — in Chiapas. As a result of that trip, I am working to develop several ideas, including what Michael and I call Subsistence Plus, a new approach to ending hunger and impoverishment while protecting small-scale farmers and the environment.
Because of this inspiration from global thinking, all new to me, I wrote the No-Nonsense Guide to World Food in 2008, have since run a facebook group trying to encourage discussions on its global themes, and have joined the board of the Unitarian Service Committee, which specializes in issues related to seed diversity, women’s rights and food sovereignty.
20. The holidays I took during my TFPC days were also life-altering. We started to spend a lot of times when visiting Lori’s hometown of Montreal at the Shivinanda Yoga centre north in the Laurentians. I spoke there several times when a visionary Swami Kertikaya was in charge; she was a fan of Get a Life!, which led her to build their lodging as the largest strawbale structure in the world. She saw social justice and environmentalism as linked to a new Yoga, and encouraged me and Lori to explore Yoga connections to spirituality. Lori later trained to be a Yoga instructor there. My screwed-up back and tight hamstrings keep me from most of the Yoga poses, but my time there after joining TFPC taught me the peace of mind that allowed me to succeed in food organizing.
Our family also “woofed” for four summers, two in beautiful Saltspring, where my close friend George Ehring is a councillor and force of nature in local green and food policy, and in lovely Prince Edward Island, where our great friends Walt and Alison show us around. Woofing — which stands for world-wide opportunities in organic farming — is a fabulous way to see and learn about the world, and has taught me many things, starting with deep respect for all food producers, including conventional ones. These woofing experiences are where I picked up two of my signature themes within the food movement — the need for food activists to win respect for farmers and food producers and thereby help bridge the urban-rural divide; and the need of food advocates to work in such a way that they contribute to a united Big Tent movement.
21. Most people see me and Lori as the odd couple, or Beauty and the Beast. She is physically dexterous and graceful, while I am a clod. She does all the home, car and computer repairs because I am a klutz. She is well-organized, which few people think I am. She is cultured and I ain’t. She is diplomatic where I tend to be polemical. Other than that, we’re pretty similar.
In our personal life, her generosity to all, her caring and love for our two kids, her deep searching for meaning in life, her boundless and innocent optimism and cheeriness make my heart sing every day. In her public life, she is an incredible combination of a hard-headed and visionary who’s built a remarkable organization called Local Food Plus, which champions local and sustainable food.
My home life allows me to approach public life as a happy and grounded and giving person with a minimum of axes to grind. I like to think of that as my trademark, but one I give all the credit for to my parental and present family and great friends.
22. In the summer of 2010, Lori and I went on a week-long canoe trip led by my old friends Debbie, David and Martha and joined by close friend Harriet. It was a beautiful and at times challenging trip along the old fur-trading route on the French River and we had tons of fun and great meals.
As a new retiree, the trip had a special meeting for me. I learned so much from my companions — about canoeing, wilderness safety, food history and bedding (Martha’s business), to name a few of the topics we discussed — that I came to understand deeply that growing old is more about growing than it is about old. I don’t want to just retire or just give back; I want to and need to keep growing in new ways. I think that should become a theme for boomer retirees who are about to repurpose. It will keep us from being a burden on society; even if we don’t make money, we can make lots of crucial contributions.
That was my “senior moment” which led me to think of doing something special to speak and write on age-old themes – which ones exactly, I don’t know yet.
23. My friend Jim Harris, former Canadian leader of the Green Party, intro’d me to thinking about our Western Society have-do-be syndrome, as in “if I had a million dollars, I would do things like go to Florida all winter, and then I would be happy.” We need to revere that and move to be-do-have if we want to be happy and sustainable, Jim says.
As a result of him teaching me about the right order of these three words, I’m struck by how many people, including myself, ask what I will do when I retire, rather than what I will be.
Anyway, so far what I do is write a weekly column for NOW, and speak to public meetings, and serve on bodies of FoodShare, Food Secure Canada, Unitarian Service Committee, Sustain Ontario, Canadian Urban Institute and more, and work on my blog, facebook sites and two forthcoming books.
What I will be and consequently do and have “when I grow up” remains to be discovered.
24. I started typing this random review of my life passages into my blackberry at a coffee shop in Montreal, while Lori was at a meeting and my two daughters were spending a special afternoon together before little sister Anika left home for university.
I am both a retiree and empty nester now. So I should try to figure out…..
25. What’s next?