Blame Toronto: If students go hungry at breakfast, that may not be Doug Ford’s fault

OPINION: The Progressive Conservatives are cutting funding for public-health agencies. Critics say that will put Toronto’s school-nutrition program at risk — but only city council can do that
By Matt Gurney - Published on April 24, 2019
Lunch tray filled with food.
More than 200,000 kids in over 600 schools receive breakfast through the efforts of Toronto’s school-nutrition program. (iStock.com/DebbiSmirnoff)

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Years ago, I had lunch with an Ottawa political veteran. As he was rattling off war stories, he dropped a reference that totally confused me. He joked, with obvious delight, about “the old cancel-the-musical-ride routine,” or words to that effect. I was baffled until I was able to get home and figure out what he meant.

My dining companion was referring to the RCMP’s Musical Ride, a travelling group of officers and horses that put on an impressive choreographic display. It’s a show, in other words — a non-core priority, completely apart from the primary mission of the RCMP. But it puts a good face on the organization, helps connect it with children and families, and undoubtedly assists with recruitment. And my lunch buddy was alluding to the fact that, every time the Mounties felt they needed more money, they’d publicly muse about cancelling the ride. Politicians would immediately find more funds.

I wonder whether Torontonians are being taken for a bit of a musical ride themselves right now.

In the recent provincial budget, the Ontario government indicated that it would cut its funding for local public-health authorities. The province will still allocate some money, but its contribution will be reduced over the next two years to 50 per cent, down from the current 75 per cent. The local authorities will be expected to pick up the slack.

I lack strong feelings about what the proper funding mix should be. Both the province and the municipalities have fair arguments to make. Local authorities are no doubt being entirely sincere when they say that the unexpected cut will be disruptive and potentially result in reduced services; Toronto has cited a long list of programs that its public-health budget supports, many of which are  worthy and important. The province, for its part, has every right in the world to re-evaluate, from time to time, the appropriate level of funding for any program or division.

The reaction to the move, of course, hasn’t been a measured discussion of how to fund various programs. Instead, it’s been an eruption of outrage and indignation: the Ford government has been accused, almost literally, of snatching food from the mouths of hungry children. This is because one of the programs partially funded by Toronto Public Health is a school-nutrition program that provides healthy breakfasts to hundreds of thousands of students in schools across the city. The logic is easy enough to follow: if you cut Public Health’s funding, there won’t be money to feed kids, and the kids will go hungry. Ergo, Doug Ford wants kids to starve.

But the astute reader will have noted a specific word in the paragraph above: partially. The school-nutrition program is partially funded by Toronto Public Health.

The efficacy of the program is not in dispute — even setting aside the moral imperative of making sure children don’t go hungry, there is solid research that demonstrates the benefits of providing healthy breakfasts for children who might otherwise go without. There are real educational and behavioural impacts. But determining just how “partially” the program is funded by Public Health has proven surprisingly difficult.

It was easy to find stats online about what the program does: they’re right here, on its website. More than 200,000 kids in over 600 schools receive breakfast through the program’s efforts. But when you click on “Funding,” all you’re told is, “The City of Toronto and the Ontario Ministry of Child and Youth Services provide a modest amount of financial support to each program, but parents are the main supporters of SNPs. Other funding comes from local community groups, foundations and private funders.”

That’s it.

I spent several days trying to get a precise figure. City councillor Joe Cressy, who has been outspokenly critical of the province’s decision, held a press conference Wednesday at which his staff circulated a handout that reads, in part, “Toronto Public Health investment is 19% (approximately $15 million) of total program costs for the Student Nutrition Program … Investment from the Province is approximately 10% of the total program costs.” The balance is handled through donations from individuals, corporations, and/or agencies. Basic math would indicate that the total program cost is, therefore, about $80 million.

Toronto’s share — $15 million — is a lot of money. But it’s not so much money that the city couldn’t raise it if necessary. The city’s annual operating budget is around $13 billion. Its entire contribution to the nutrition program is literally one-one-thousandth of annual operating spending. It’s clear that keeping healthy food in schools is something that Toronto could do if council so chose. Arguments to the contrary are nonsense.

This will sound like a defence of the Ford government. It isn’t. As I stated above, I’m completely agnostic on how the service gets funded. What bothers me, though, is a political culture in which any cut, or even a funding-mix realignment, is treated as an immediate existential threat to poor children, without any consideration of how the program is currently being delivered and whether that method of delivery is the best or only one.

There shouldn’t be any real argument about the urgent imperative to feed hungry children. But accepting that goal does not then mean that we should slavishly adhere to a status-quo funding formula that might make sense but also might not. And claims that the province’s move is akin to flinging fresh fruit off a child’s plate onto an unswept floor like a scene out of a Dickens novel only contributes to the further dumbing down of the political culture in this city and province — which is plenty dumb enough already.

Find a way to feed the kids. That’s not too much to ask of our elected officials — at any level. The hyperbole and posturing we’ve seen thus far aren’t helping. Rather the opposite.

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