A Toronto councillor is worried budget pressures will force the city to stop expanding a program that helps feed students in need, even as more children than ever are relying on the subsidized meals.
The city's budget committee will debate the funding for its Student Nutrition Program, on which the city spent $9.9 million last year to provide breakfast, lunch and snacks for some 194,000 students, at the committee's upcoming January meeting.
Toronto Public Health recommends spending an extra $2.2 million in 2017 so that more students can be fed through the program, budget notes state. But those same notes say the preliminary budget mentions a boost of $140,000, which would cover only the inflationary cost of food.
Coun. Mike Layton, who serves on the budget committee, blames Mayor John Tory's demand that city departments cut their budgets by 2.6 per cent.
A spokesperson from Tory's office, however, said the mayor has championed the expansion of the nutrition program and won't support its rollback.
'Bottom line is we have to pay for the services we deliver like student nutrition.' - Statement from Mayor John Tory's office
Layton said he will urge councillors to support an increase that could help an additional 15,000 students.
"I hope that, in our wisdom as a city, we see value in an increase in the number of students that go to school with a full belly," the Ward 19 Trinity–Spadina councillor told CBC Toronto at city hall.
Last year, councillors spent city reserves to pay for the program, but Layton said that's likely not an option this time around.
The city covers just under 20 per cent of the program, with millions more coming from other sources like fundraisers and parents' contributions.
Toronto school boards serving more and more meals
Child poverty is a growing issue in Toronto. The Toronto District School Board (TDSB) alone serves more than 136,000 breakfasts and lunches every day and opened 140 new breakfast initiatives in 2016.
"We would love to open up another 140 more but that depends on more money," Catherine Parsonage, the executive director of the Toronto Foundation for Student Success, a charitable organization that works alongside the TDSB to help students in need, recently told CBC.
A two-year study done by the TDSB in 2012 found students performed better academically when they were well fed.
That's something Parsonage said teachers didn't need a study to prove.
"The best teacher … can't teach a hungry child," she said.
How will city pay for expansion?
Layton said councillors need to find the courage to increase tax rates to pay for things like the Student Nutrition Program.
"This budget helps those who own very expensive property and it hurts those who rely on city services," he said.
"We need to look at this budget a different way."
Tory has vowed to keep property taxes at or below the rate of inflation and in a statement called the process of cutting department budgets "necessary and effective."
"Bottom line is we have to pay for the services we deliver like student nutrition, and what the mayor and city council have done is asked each and every division of the city to take a hard look at their books to make sure the money is being spent wisely," the statement from Tory's office said.
The city's budget debate is set to unfold during the next two months.