Wayne Roberts, a hero for food systems change

February 18, 2021

Wayne Roberts was a long-time food activist, policy analyst and author who inspired many in their food sovereignty work.

Photo of Wayne Roberts wearing a wide brimmed hat, dark-rimmed glasses and holding a walking stick. He's standing on a steep slope and the photo is taken from above, so the background is the mountainside sloping down behind him. A young man stands to his left.

We were lucky enough to have Wayne’s wit, wisdom and insight guiding SeedChange for six years when he served on our board of directors. Our board meetings were enriched by his contributions and humour, which routinely left everyone present in stitches with laughter.

In 2012, Wayne came with us to Honduras to learn from some of the hillside farmer-researchers we work with there. As usual, he took copious notes about what he learned, and we witnessed his deep respect for food small-scale food producers. In true Wayne form, he helped SeedChange (then USC Canada) make a short film to ensure he could share with others what the farmers had taught him.

“We think of innovation as being the work of scientists hired by major corporations… but here you see a totally different kind of grassroots innovation. The lead is always from the farmers on the ground.”

We’re really going to miss you, friend.

A celebration of Wayne’s life will be livestreamed on Sunday, February 21 at 2 p.m. EST.

Here are a few words of celebration and appreciation for Wayne Roberts from members of the SeedChange community.

One of the things that always stood out to me about Wayne was how enthusiastic he was about young activists. He prioritized being available to provide advice to young people just starting out in their food sovereignty work. I first met Wayne when I was one of those young people. In my eyes he was a total celebrity and when I reached out to him to ask for a meeting I never thought he would give me the time of day. Wayne was responsive, kind, made time to meet me in person (he insisted it be a walking meeting, which I loved), and his fierce determination, intelligence and wit were so inspiring. He was one of a kind, and he will be deeply missed.

Jane Rabinowicz, SeedChange executive director

I learned so much from him while in school, and was blown away when I started working at an organization that had him on their board. His contributions and ideas on how to make the food system better are, and always will be, brilliant, and there are so many people trying to enact what he wanted to see changed and live out what he believed…but I’m just really, really, really going to miss that smile.

SeedChange staff member

…Wayne had his wit on a dimmer switch to keep the lumens in safe range (usually). Try as he would to not succumb to maturity, this man of many letters practiced restraint in our long productive meetings: listening, waiting, and speaking only in timely distilled missives of wisdom. And when he joked it was not to bask in attention but to create joy, which to him was a medium of enlightened action.

I anticipated time with Wayne like an approaching holiday—presents of laughter and friendship were imminent.

Mark Austin, former SeedChange board member (read Mark’s full tribute to Wayne here)

Wayne was a fantastic person. It was a pleasure working with him. His interactions with Mark Austin were very pleasant moments for our board meeting. He had deep knowledge of the food systems and when he left the board at the end of his mandate, we were in contact exchanging documents, news and other relevant materials via social media. What a big loss for the sustainable food system activists, researchers, defenders…!

We’ll miss you Wayne. May his soul rest in peace. Let’s continue to perpetuate what Wayne Roberts achieved in his lifetime on food systems!

Good rest, our food system HERO.

Mamadou Goita, former SeedChange board member

I am saddened to hear of the death of Wayne Roberts, far too young, as he still had so much to offer the world. I retain so many great memories with Wayne at our lively USC Canada Board meetings in Ottawa, and also the Run for Biodiversity events and dinners that I organized in Toronto. His unique combination of energy and commitment to a cause (a more equitable and just food system) plus his warm-hearted humour will be sorely missed.

David Rain, former SeedChange staff member

So sad to hear about the passing away of Wayne Roberts. I didn’t have an opportunity to interact with him in person but I have heard about his great contributions while serving on the SeedChange Board as well as to the just and sustainable food movement.

Pratap Shrestha, Seed systems and plant genetic resources specialist, Seedchange

A Wish… How wonderful it would be if I could descend from the skies, wave a magic wand, and change the ending of Wayne’s story. I would bestow him good health to the grand old age of 96 – an additional two decades to continue to make us all laugh, make us all think, inspire us to act, and continue to share his huge heart and deep wisdom. Alas, I don’t have wings, nor magic. But I do have an armful of fine memories of a man who made this world a far better and more just place. And for that, I feel so very grateful. Thank you my friend and yes, also for being a board member who reminded us never to take ourselves too seriously. Love, Susie

Susan Walsh, former SeedChange executive director

Wayne was a dear friend, colleague, mentor, pal. He must have had something to do with bringing me to the attention of SeedChange, then USC Canada. My time on the Board is just one of myriad gifts I received from Wayne. We were friends for decades, and close friends for years since he and his partner Lori and I began an annual daylong picnic each Canada Day at Wayne’s childhood playground ,the Scarborough Bluffs. We shared experiences in Toronto Food Policy Council, in engagement with researchers and activists in Canada, France, and elsewhere, and in mentoring young people of all backgrounds eager to do the work to understand and change the food system.

While friends were barred from visits during Wayne’s illness because of the pandemic, many of us wrote him short emails with diverting songs or images, as humorous as possible. Yet seriousness and gratitude were at the heart of our love for Wayne. He phoned me last fall from hospital to appreciate me as friend and mentor. Through my tears, I was able to appreciate him for exactly the same gifts. I then wrote: “Dearest Wayne, a brief note to say I love you and am so grateful for our friendship. I’m glad you can be home. Not seeing you is maybe the worst part of Covid. 😘”

I was so very fortunate to be able to see Wayne after all. When I delivered a meal the day he had decided to stop the transfusions, knowing he would live for only a few days, his partner Lori unexpectedly invited me to the top of the stairs, where I could see Wayne in his hospital bed across the room. When he lowered his mask slightly, I noted his new moustache. He pulled it down completely and said, “That’s nothing. I have a beard to rival Marx!” Always up to date on politics, Wayne referred to the recent white supremacist invasion of the US capitol: “when we used to advocate for the proletariat to seize the state, this isn’t what we had in mind.” Brilliance and humour, personal and political, and a joyous smile above the beard as he once again thanked me for being a mentor!

Others will comment on Wayne’s extraordinary contributions to good food, starting with good seeds held by strong communities, and to urban food politics and policies in Toronto and across the world. I will say as a friend that Wayne gave me the rare experience of combining intellectual engagement and seriousness of purpose with laughter, play, and unalloyed joy.

Another dear friend, Deb Barndt, sent this lovely photo from one of our shared canoe trips, which she entitled “Wayne and Harriet and Marx?”

It is difficult to express what is in my heart about Wayne. What attributes did Wayne give us and what did he model for me and everyone? Humour combined with serious commitment; warmth combined with brilliance; joy combined with hard work and ceaseless energy; profound respect for ideas and irreverence for titles—he delighted in calling everyone “doctor” in a gently mocking way, though his work on Food for City Building and his influence on Toronto Public Health drew on the historical knowledge gained in his doctoral thesis. And he read everything I suggested to him or what he found in my flat in Montpellier, France. He enjoyed sending up “Marxism-Leninism” while retaining deep connections to his own past as Marxist activist, even as he evolved into a Solutionary.

Wayne and his dear partner Lori are models of how to live and die well. We are fortunate indeed to have known him. We must treasure his legacy and live up to his inspiration.

Harriet Friedmann, former SeedChange board member