Toronto city budget cuts: Out of the mouths of babes?

Austerity is a hard mouthful to swallow.

And it might be getting harder for some low-income children in Toronto.

To reduce its budget by the 2.6 per cent demanded by Mayor John Tory in order to keep any potential property tax increase at, or below, the rate of inflation, Toronto’s Board of Health Budget Committee will weigh eliminating Student Nutrition Program funding for 13,279 children on September 26.

Doing so would save the city $737,300 by cutting off funding for 44 Student Nutrition Programs, according to a report prepared for the meeting.

Toronto’s nutrition program presently serves breakfast, snacks, and lunch to about 160,000 children and youth every day.

The meals get to children courtesy of Student Nutrition Toronto, which is a partnership of Toronto Public Health, Toronto’s public, Catholic and French-language school boards, the Toronto Foundation for Student Success, the Angel Foundation for Learning, and FoodShare.

“Each student nutrition program is unique and a reflection of its community,” the city notes on the program’s website. “They are operated in schools and community sites by volunteers and staff.”

Swords are already clashing over the proposed funding cuts and, as a result, the future policy direction of the city’s Student Nutrition Program.

Midtown Councillor Joe Mihevc (Ward 21), the chairperson of the board of health budget committee, opposes cutting the board’s budget for student food. Mihevc, who has historically advocated for the Student Nutrition Program, penned an op-ed about food insecurity in Toronto earlier this year and recently tweeted to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that Canada should have a national student nutrition program in place.

Meanwhile, east Toronto Councillor Jon Burnside (Ward 26), a board of health committee member, has publicly mused about the city investigating involving the private sector in Student Nutrition Program funding.

Whatever the budget committee’s decision is, it will have to be approved by city council.

The city notes its Student Nutrition Program assists students in several ways, including providing much-needed food energy for their studies, helping prevent obesity, and supporting “better scores in math, reading and science.”

The city’s nutrition program approach is backed by research, which notes linkages between low-income households, obesity, how often breakfast is consumed, and child behaviour. A 2002 study cited by the city’s research shows that children who attended a breakfast club for six months had better math grades, attendance, behavior, and punctuality than those children who did not.

The research used by the city shows that skipping breakfast is more prevalent among female, low-income, and racialized students. Older children and adolescents also do not eat breakfast more often.

More than 24 per cent of Grade 4 students in Canada do not eat breakfast every day, the city’s research reports. One study estimates that more than 40 per cent of Canadian children do not regularly eat a nutritious breakfast.

So, what does this all mean? Simply, it comes down to a matter of priorities.

The mayor has said he intends to keep any 2017 property tax increases at or below the rate of inflation. His directive to city departments to slash their budgets is arguably a strong indicator that he is not prepared to waver from that agenda.

But are budget cuts the only option? No.

In her 2015 report, Toronto’s Taxing Question, CCPA-Ontario Senior Economist Sheila Block outlines “how a mix of alcohol, cigarette, entertainment, and other municipal taxes could yield more than $600 million in additional revenue.”

With that kind of revenue, the $737,300 earmarked for the Student Nutrition Program is a sustainable investment in Toronto’s future.

Drawing on those tax options would also eliminate the need to involve the private sector in the provision of a program tailored to the needs of impressionable children in an environment designed for learning.

What would be the trade-off of private sector involvement? Advertising? Changes to the quality of food?

Food security is already a topic of debate in Toronto. It is hard to imagine how tossing market logic into the mix would do anything except potentially build brand loyalty for a private enterprise. Is that the city’s job?

Ultimately, it is true that this year’s debate is not about whether to end the Student Nutrition Program in its entirety. However, if the program’s funding is raided, it will set a significant precedent — and arguably send a message that lower property taxes are more important than the well-being of some of Toronto’s most vulnerable residents.

*Disclosure: Joe Mihevc is my ward councillor

Joe Fantauzzi is a research assistant interning at the CCPA-Ontario.

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