A Q&A with Food Policy Analyst, Writer and Visiting Scholar Dr. Wayne Roberts

There is no denying it: New College cares about food equity and sustainability.

Food equity has long been a theme in our course offerings; our Audrey Taylor Dining Hall offers local and sustainable fare; and during the most recent academic year we hired a Food Systems Coordinator, Lori Stahlbrand, to promote food scholarship and plan related events for our students.

Now, the trend continues with the appointment in April of Dr. Wayne Roberts as Visiting Scholar. Roberts is a prominent food policy analyst and prolific author. He first made a splash in the food-activism world with the release of Real Food for a Change in 1999 (a book which he co-wrote with Stahlbrand, who is his wife, and Dr. Rod MacRae) and later served as manager of the Toronto Food Policy Council.

We spoke to Roberts to learn more about his new role (which is not the first he’s held at New College),  the food issues that are keeping him up at night – or rather, waking him up in the morning – and what opportunities individuals have to help change food systems.
Can you tell us a little bit about your new role as Visiting Scholar? What does the position entail?

I plan to use the title in many ways. I will use it mostly to promote the habit of linking food and equity – the same way we link peanut butter and jelly, research and development, health and well-being, love and marriage, horse and carriage.

Food and equity belong together when we talk about access to food for people [living] on low incomes, for people with physical disabilities or for people discriminated against on the basis of age, gender or race.

Just as important are issues of equitable treatment of sentient beings (livestock) in agriculture, and of nature as a whole, which is linked with sustainability – [in other words,] equitable treatment of future generations. Equity is a great lens on food and food is a great lens on equity.

I also plan to be available for all students, faculty and staff at New College who want to talk about food studies or careers in the food movement. There are few things as rewarding as contributing to the future by helping students concerned about the world’s future.
This isn’t your first contribution to the New College community – you helped launch the Equity Studies Program’s Food and Equity stream in 2002, among other contributions. What motivated you to return to the College?

You’ve probably heard of the accidental tourist. I’m an accidental academic.

After working very hard on my PhD, I decided academic life wasn’t for me – [I felt] too disengaged from issues I felt passionate about. I worked for about 20 years in journalism, the union movement, Greenpeace and the movement for green economics before landing in Toronto’s Public Health department as manager of the Toronto Food Policy Council.

Food [wasn’t a part of] the original plan for the Equity Studies program, but an old friend of mine, Bob Spencer, worked at a food bank, and he was an old friend of New College’s then-Principal, David Clandfield and [Equity Studies Program Director] June Larkin. Before we knew it, a discussion on how Equity Studies students could help people facing hunger led to a seminar on food-security research methods – the first ever in Canada. And I was hooked on New College and its commitment to community contribution as a learning opportunity.

It’s a story that shows how open New College is to all forms, shapes and sizes of learning and knowing – the ultimate guarantee of a good educational experience.
What are the food issues that are keeping you up at night?

At my age, unfortunately, no questions keep me up at night. My problem is being awakened by thoughts that make me too anxious to sleep in past 6:00 a.m.

The issue that wakes me up is global warming because it may well impose irreversible damage before we come to our senses and do something positive. I believe that now means we need to link as much of our thinking as possible to reducing the damage done by pollution…Food will be central to that because it will become harder to grow under conditions of climate chaos and because food can help us live lives that reduce further damage. About a third of global warming gases come from problems in the food system, so there are many opportunities to do good work.
Your most recent book, Food for City Building: A Field Guide for Planners, Actionists and Entrepreneurs, was released just this spring. In this large, complex city of Toronto, what opportunities – and barriers – do we have to solve problems through food?

Food presents us with incredible opportunities and barriers at the same time.

We can see the opportunities at New College, where Lori, David Clandfield, and then-New College-Chef Jaco Lokker, among others, launched the first Local Food Plus program whereby a university required increasing amounts of local and sustainable food. It’s been a huge success, above all in making hope practical, as Welsh city-food expert Kevin Morgan likes to say.

The program shows change works with flying colours. But business and government have done less than nothing to build on that success. That is the “so near, but so far” frustration of working on food issues.

It confirms faith and confidence in people and nature, but building momentum in face of resistance remains a challenge.
Obviously, food equity issues are important to New College and many of our students, and we have more than our fair share of community-building students.  What opportunities do students have to create change in this area?

Thanks for asking that. [My book] Food for City Building has a lot of recipes students can work with to bring about change.

Few areas of life depend as much as food on what Lori and I call, “the power of one to make a difference.” We can buy fair-trade coffee, tea and cacao and contribute to the well-being of about 25 million people as well as the environment they live in. We can cook from scratch and cut back on packaging. We can introduce our friends to better food choices. We can think about ways to promote positive food changes when we graduate and become lawyers, teachers, journalists, social workers – or whatever; all jobs can benefit from positive food changes. We can join social movements. The Toronto Youth Food Policy Council has strong connections to New College, and can always put new members to work.

Individuals make about 200 food decisions a day – shall I have white toast, conventional coffee, milk from a plastic container and sugar from a paper packet, or whole grain toast with fair-trade coffee, local organic milk, but no sugar? It goes on like that all day. New College has nearly 5,000 students. That means we have 200 times 5,000 chances every day to do something positive for the environment, justice and health. Multiply that by 365 for the yearly impact. And double that when you get a friend to join you. And multiply by 2.5 million when Toronto signs on, which may well get going after this fall election. This is the world of opportunity that food offers.

This article was originally published at http://www.newcollege.utoronto.ca/news/wayne-roberts/

Speak Your Mind