Toronto

Ontario's cuts to Toronto Public Health threaten to 'devastate' school nutrition program, some warn

Many advocates are warning that Ontario's surprise cuts to Toronto Public Health's funding threaten to destroy the city's school nutrition program, which is relied upon by at least 200,000 children, and they want to see the province reverse course.

As Toronto fights to reverse the province's move, some point the finger at the city

Toronto Public Health puts $14 million towards nutrition programs across the city, which take the form of breakfast, snack, morning meal and lunch options, each 'a reflection' of the community they serve, according to the city's website. (Shutterstock/Syda Productions)

Many advocates are warning that Ontario's surprise cuts to Toronto Public Health's funding threaten to destroy the city's school nutrition program, which is relied upon by at least 200,000 children, and they want to see the province reverse course.

News of the cuts hit just before the start of the Easter long weekend, and mean an immediate $86-million hole in the public health agency's budget — part of a larger move to slash $1 billion in funding over the next 10 years,  Coun. Joe Cressy said Thursday afternoon.

That's left the city having to weigh just what programs it can afford to keep running and to what extent, meaning the cuts could affect everything from the nutrition programs to daycare inspections to detecting public health threats such as SARS. 

The chair of Toronto's Catholic District School Board worries amid all the decision making, the school nutrition program could be hit the hardest. 

"I'm reacting to the shock of a billion-dollar cut to TPH because I think it will put our children in peril," board chair Maria Rizzo told CBC News. "It will devastate the program ... It cannot survive the magnitude of this cut." 

Toronto Public Health puts $14 million towards nutrition programs across the city, which take the form of breakfast, snack, morning meal and lunch options, each "a reflection" of the community they serve, according to the city's website.

'A proven measure' 

A 2012 evaluation of the program found 82 per cent of students surveyed said the program kept them from feeling hungry and 74 per cent said it improved their well being. 

Students who ate morning meals most days out of a week achieved better results compared to those who them only one or two times a week, the report said. "Differences were remarkable in the areas of independent work," it said, a difference 70 per cent vs. 56 per cent. 

TCDSB Chair Maria Rizzo worries amid all the decision making, children could be hit the hardest. (Lauren Pelley/CBC)

"This has been a proven measure to not only make sure that kids have a healthy meal ... but it also improves learning," Cressy said.

"My concern here is simply, if we don't have the money, I'm not sure how we're going to keep running these student nutrition programs," he said, adding the city now has to triage which programs it can afford. 

"Do kids keep getting to have healthy breakfasts? Do we stop checking restaurants to make sure its safe to eat there?"

In a statement Thursday, the press secretary for Health Minister Christine Elliott disputed the dollar amount being attached to the cuts, saying they would "amount to one-third of a percentage point of the city's annual budget, hardly a billion dollars.

"Our government will continue to do our part as we slowly shift the cost-sharing funding model over the next three years to reflect municipalities' stronger role in the delivery of public health and we encourage the City of Toronto to do the same," spokesperson Hayley Chazan said. 

More than 200,000 students access more than 600 school nutrition programs across Toronto, the city says. (Toronto Public Health)

A 'targeted attack'?

News of the reduced funding set off a firestorm of controversy online.

"If the city thinks of all places it could possibly save money, breakfasts for kids is the first thing that should go, that's on them," tweeted the federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, Aaron Wudrick.
Others shared stories of the powerful impact the programs had on them. 

Reacting to the cuts Thursday, Mayor John Tory called the cuts a "targeted attack on the health of our entire city," saying he will be working to see it reversed.

Cressy echoed that sentiment Monday

"I think Torontonians and Ontarians are awakening to the real severity of these cuts," he said.

"There is only one course of action for the province here and that is to reverse these unnecessary cuts."

With files from Lauren Pelley

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