Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions with Wayne Roberts

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Ten Questions with Wayne Roberts

Wayne Roberts is an author and columnist for NOW Magazine, he’s on the board of the Community Food Security Coalition and Food Secure Canada, and coordinates the Toronto Food Policy Council, the most respected city food group in the world. The launch for his book, The No-Nonsense Guide to World Food (Between The Lines) is on Thursday, September 18 at Toronto Sprouts. See our events page for details.

OB:

Tell us about your latest book, The No-Nonsense Guide to World Food.

WR:

The No-Nonsense Guide to World Food is a hard-hitting explanation of the triple whammy that has so many people buckled up in pain by the global food system: the obesity suffered by over a billion people, the desperate hunger inflicted on over a billion people, and the degradation imposed on the food-producing environment we all rely on to eat or earn a living. I do my best to present this explanation and analysis from the perspective of a person who loves food and takes great joy from participating in the “food movement.” So the material on the triple whammy is really just the backdrop for optimistic stories about people and organizations that are making solid progress and proposing workable solutions that benefit people and the environment. That’s what makes the book an uplifting and fun read, I think.

OB:

How did you research your book?

WR:

I’m doing this interview from Prince Edward Island, where I’m working on an organic sheep farm, our family’s fourth year of volunteering during our holidays on organic farms somewhere in Canada. This kind of participatory research gives me some understanding of organic agriculture, but more important, a solid appreciation for the food producers’ point of view on the world. I credit this kind of experience for the fact that I’m one of the only food analysts to say that the solution to today’s rising food prices is to make food affordable by raising incomes of eaters, not lowering food prices from producers; food prices have been way too low for way too long, and that’s a major reason why we’re having a food crisis today, I argue. Almost all the research in this book is based on my direct experience as an activist. I’m a trained academic with a Ph D and know how to do book research, but the unique perspective and information in the book come from my frontline experience and my work with people who are at the forefront of coming up with solutions.

OB:

Did you have a specific readership in mind when you wrote the guide?

WR:

The book is written for the young people who are looking to food as an area of activity that could satisfy their need to find careers, lifestyles, shopping choices and politics that are positive, hopeful and authentic. It’s also for a somewhat older generation of social justice, health and environmental activists who haven’t yet considered what food has to offer as a gateway to new and transformative ways of thinking about food.

OB:

If you had to choose three books as a “Welcome to Canada” gift, what would those books be?

WR:

I think Canadians are really working to make this a country that welcomes people from all over the world, and that work includes taking a long hard look at injustices perpetrated in our past. I think one book that helps us understand where we’ve come from and how we need to work through that is Joy Kogawa’s Obasan. I think it says a lot about Canada that David Suzuki is one of our folk heroes, so I would recommend his book Good News for a Change to a newcomer. One of the professors who stood up for me when I was working on my Ph D was Ken McNaught, one of the first historians to look at Canada’s unique tradition of social justice work, particularly as embodied by JS Woodsworth, a leader of the Winnipeg General Strike and founder of the CCF, the farmer-labour party that brought us medicare, pensions and unemployment insurance. A newcomer who wants to understand why we’re such a decent country could start with that book.

OB:

What are you reading right now?

WR:

Organic farmers have the concept of companion plants that protect each other from each other’s predators. As I get ready for my book launch, I’m reading companion books. Knowing I would be too tired after a day’s farming to go out at night, I brought five books with me to PEI to read at night. I read Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, about the joys her family had learning to eat locally. I read Raj Patel’s denunciation of the global food system, Stuffed and Starved, as well as Paul Roberts’ more coolly-written but equally harsh The End of Food. For fun, I read David Kamp’s The United States of Arugula, which is a short history of US foodies. And right now, I’m reading Kevin Morgan’s Worlds of Food. They’re all examples of the excellent books that are coming out on the trials and tribulations of today’s food system. They make me feel good because they confirm most of the interpretations in my book and because they show the distinctive value of my book, as the only one that features solutions that feature doable policy reforms and programs that can be launched at the local level.

OB:

What was your first publication?

WR:

My first academic publication came out in 1975, the year that featured the international campaign for women’s rights; I co-wrote an article with Alice Klein, now co-owner of NOW Magazine, Toronto’s highly successful alternative paper, on the history of working women in Canada. About the same time, I wrote an article on early printers, and their role in the Canadian labor movement. Almost all my early writings were in the field of social history, until I got bitten by the enviro bug in the late 1980s and was arrested at an anti-logging blockade in Temagami, a cause that led to my passion for mixing environmental and social justice issues.

OB:

Describe your ideal writing environment.

WR:

I’ve never written anything in an ideal environment because I’ve always had too many things on the go and under the discipline of extreme deadlines. At some point, I will have to admit that this is my ideal writing environment, and be happy with my plastic bag of clippings and notes that I take to a coffee shop to draft out the next two pages of a chapter before rushing home to fingerpeck them into my computer.

OB:

Describe the most memorable response you’ve received from a reader.

WR:

In 1993 and 1995, I co-wrote two versions of a manual on green economics called Get A Life! A lot of people called to say the book helped them get a life. When I applied the same method to the co-writing of Real Food for a Change, we got a similar reaction. Since I lost a lot of money working on both books, those words of thanks were the encouragement I needed to keep going.

OB:

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received as a writer?

WR:

The best advice I’ve received as a writer is advice I’ve had a terrible time heeding, despite my best efforts. The advice is to tell a human interest story that tells itself, and doesn’t need much in the way of analysis. Thanks to the research methods I followed for this book, I did better than I usually do at following that advice in this book.

OB:

What is your next project?

WR:

My next project is to do a series of follow-ups on this one, hopefully some short and sweet projects that identify ways to organize around food issues in ways that are good for the environment, good for community development, good for economic productivity and good for public health. I would like that to be my signature: the ability to bring positive energy to solutions that create benefits on many fronts at once.

No-Nonsense Guide to World Food "Couldn’t be more timely, especially given the great deal of rubbish being served to a public hungry for answers about their food....a powerful book."
—Raj Patel, author of
Starved & Stuffed: Markets, Power and the Hidden Battle for the World Food System


Read more about The No-Nonsense Guide to World Food by Wayne Roberts at the Between The Lines website.

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