Would You Like Some Gravy With Your Nutritious Breakfast?
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Would You Like Some Gravy With Your Nutritious Breakfast?

Climb-down on nutrition programs more about season-friendly politics than good policy.

A deputant at the two-day budget committee deputation session last week.

In Whoville they say that the Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day…

How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)

At one point in last week’s rather remarkable food fight over the proposed cuts to school nutrition programs, Councillor Doug Ford (Ward 2, Etobicoke North), Mayor Rob Ford’s elder brother, told the Toronto Sun that “the mandate from the mayor when he was running in the election was not to hurt kids and we aren’t going to hurt kids.”

Well, that’s a relief.

Brother Doug went on to reassure the governed that despite the continued proliferation of “waste” and “fat,” the Ford administration would restore the proposed $392,000 cut to school nutrition programs… somehow.

Roll up the sleeves, sharpen the pencils—the white hats are on the case.

The declaration came hard on the heels of budget chief Mike Del Grande’s (Ward 39, Scarborough-Agincourt) capitulation on this same point, which in turn followed Doug Ford’s ridiculous pledge of $1,000 to one organization that had come to depute in support of said program.

If you peel the onion further, you see that the outbreak of humanity from the Fords came in the wake of Adam Vaughan’s spectacularly effective talk of a “war on children” as well as the deluge of earnest coverage in the Toronto Star—which someone in the Ford camp seems to be reading, petulant embargoes notwithstanding.

Pardon my skepticism, but I’m not buying the redemptive Grinch/Scrooge narrative that has accompanied their reversal, and which will likely reach its apotheosis during today’s budget committee session (when, after hearing from City staff, the heads of various departments, agencies, boards, and commissions, two days worth of public deputants, members of the committee will vote on whether to retain the current budget proposal or make any changes to it).

Given the season, the cuts story was so toxic that even the most oblivious politician could see that the spectre of hungry, doe-eyed seven-year-olds is a mammoth public relations disaster. I appreciate what my colleague Hamutal Dotan has written about the Fords’ sloppy but generous brand of empathy. Maybe true, but this move smacked of damage control.

The Fords’ problem, with these and other City programs, is that they are unable to shift from the particular to the general. But their reversal on the nutrition programs offers further proof of the empty core at the heart of their fiscal agenda. As a councillor and then candidate, Ford loved to attack the City’s $47 million community grants budget, from which the nutrition money comes, as a slush fund for special interest groups, especially those in the LGBT community. In the year prior to the election, he moved a motion calling for a 10 per cent across-the-board cut.

During the early days of the Ford administration and into this past spring, the community grants budget continued to rank high on his hit list. Yet the KPMG core service review [PDF, see pages 70–72] offered some words of caution on the matter of the grants budget. The consultants wrote that many large municipalities traditionally maintain some kind of granting function. In terms of the $6.3 million envelope that covers AIDS and drug prevention, as well as school nutrition, KPMG ranked the outlay lowest in terms of its importance to the municipality’s core functions. But the CSR report also cautioned—presciently as it turns out—that while council could opt to eliminate the community grants budget, the barriers to said decision would be “high” and community programs could be “compromised.”

Why? Well, when Joe Pennachetti’s team released the proposed operating budget two weeks ago, the analyst notes pointed out that the $47 million community grants actually generate almost half a billion dollars in additional public and private investment and revenue. They also cautioned that a 10 per cent cut would translate into a loss of almost $50 million in leveraged dollars.

In any event, no one could say the Fords weren’t warned.

Obviously, though, they didn’t bother to listen until confronted late last week with the abyss of negative public sentiment opening beneath their feet.

Looking at this half-filled glass, an optimist might conclude that the brothers Ford, like so many conservatives before them, are gradually realizing that the cheap‘n’easy rhetoric of public sector pork takes on a very different hue when the full weight of government responsibility settles heavily on their shoulders. But a pessimist would argue that last week’s gesture was for show only, and that the Fords won’t learn until their cuts lead to something genuinely disastrous, like Walkerton or the Russell Hill subway collision.

I’m choosing option two: the administration’s stirring climb-down on the nutrition program cuts seemed to be more about the gristle than the steak.