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British Columbia Funding cut to Vancouver school lunch program shines light on escalating costs, questionable quality

Adrienne Tanner is a Vancouver journalist who writes about civic affairs.

Last week’s political melee surrounding Vancouver City Council funding cuts for school lunches grew as tangled as the myriad programs that deliver meals to the city’s most disadvantaged children.

There are few groups as vulnerable as school age children. And to be on the side of angels, politicians must always be doing – or at least appear to be doing – more for hungry children, not less. It is dodgy to even question the value for dollar of a given lunch program. Teachers certainly don’t dare, lest it be taken away. After all, any food is better than no food at all.

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Money for school lunches in the Vancouver School District comes from the provincial and municipal governments, non-profit agencies and private donors. Teachers, when they see hungry students, also frequently buy fruit and snacks to help fill the void. In December, the new city council passed a budget that cut funding for school lunches from $320,000 to $160,000 in 2019. It was a line item in a $1-billion budget and went unnoticed by council.

City staff were concerned about escalating costs; lunches were predicted to rise to $8.72 this year from $7.61 and are therefore serving fewer students. They told the Vancouver School Board that in March they planned to recommend council approve a grant to carry the program to the end of this school year, but the VSB would still have a net loss to the program of $32,000. Further funding arrangements would then be negotiated after the completion of a new food services plan being done by the VSB. The news leaked before council even received the recommendation.

The public backlash was instant, and councillors scrambled to make it clear they were not interested in chopping food programs for disadvantaged kids. Councillor Pete Fry moved to bridge this school year’s $32,000 cut and council will likely approve the motion next week. However, Mr. Fry says he won’t shy away from continuing conversations about costs “just because it’s politically unpalatable.”

But: “I don’t want kids going hungry.”

Mayor Kennedy Stewart tweeted a personal mea culpa. He said cuts were baked into the city’s first $1-billion budget and were inadvertently overlooked by council. “No one on Council noticed the change in funding to the lunch program. That was our mistake, and I personally feel awful that it was missed.”

Former CTV anchor Tamara Taggart further muddied the debate. She posted on Twitter three photos of dreary hot lunches, which as it turns out are offered in only a few schools and are funded by the province, not the city. Some were served directly on cafeteria trays. In one, a pulled pork sandwich on half a hot dog bun was placed atop a piece of paper in lieu of a plate. In another, two carrot sticks are plopped on the tray beside a bowl of greyish stew.

The city-funded lunches are cold and consist of a sandwich, piece of fruit and dairy product and treat. The hot lunches are not related to the city cuts, and Ms. Taggart acknowledged she confused the two programs. Still, the hot lunches are unpalatable, she said. “If I was a kid with that meal, it says you’re worthless.”

I am not taking issues with the nutritional value of either the cold or hot lunches. But to my eye, the bagged lunches look more appealing. A teacher at a school where hot lunches are served said Ms. Taggart’s Twitter photos depict lunches on a particularly bad day but confirmed there are often no plates and presentation is always lacking. All of this is about money. Schools don’t have cash to spend on extra cafeteria staff to wash plates and cook, so the food is ordered in.

Of course, the prices paid must be fair. We don’t want to pay so little for labour that children of the people who make the lunches join the ranks of those in need. And we absolutely need to provide tasty, nutritious lunches, hot or cold, to children who need them. But we should never be too afraid to question value or quality and always strive to improve.

Where is Jamie Oliver when you need him?

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