Erin George and her husband wage a daily battle familiar to many busy homes. They rush to pack a lunch for their five-year-old daughter, knowing the odds it will return untouched or barely nibbled.
So when Ms. George and a group of parents proposed bringing an optional hot-lunch service to their West End Toronto school, she thought she had found a way to ease the burden.
She didn't expect that lunch plan to divide the neighbourhood in a philosophical debate about inequality, classism and privatization.
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Last month, more than 50 parents attended a council meeting at Dewson Street Junior Public School – setting what is thought to be an attendance record – to discuss the proposal. One parent who was at the school, near Bloor Street and Ossington Avenue, described the mood as "intense."
Dissenters raised concerns about the cost of the meals, and whether lower-income students would suffer from having to go without. Supporters argued that the private company contracted to provide the meals has provisions to subsidize families who can't afford full-price lunches of roughly $5 but wanted to participate.
"I did not think it would be this challenging," said Ms. George, whose child is in senior kindergarten.
The food fight is not unique in the city, where children attending schools in gentrifying neighbourhoods can come from a range of economic backgrounds. Lunch might be the hot point at Dewson, but the issue of equity stretches across the spectrum, from book fairs to pizza lunches.
At the heart of the debate is a simple question: Should public schools embrace programs that are not universally accessible to students?
The Toronto District School Board provides a morning nutrition program, through government funding, in a number of schools. The board allows schools to make decisions on paid hot-lunch programs, offering them a list of six suppliers that have been vetted through a tendering process. The list includes Real Food for Real Kids, the Toronto catering company Ms. George and some parents at Dewson have shown an interest in.
Ryan Bird, a TDSB spokesman, said issues around equity would need to be addressed at the school before any decision is made. A school committee has been formed to study how to bring in a hot-lunch program that is accessible to all students.
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Dewson is a school with a population of almost 500, and which offers French immersion. It sits on the edge of the rapidly gentrifying Dufferin Grove neighbourhood. A four-bedroom house on the street raised eyebrows when it sold for $2.1-million, $800,000 over the asking price. The neighbourhood is also culturally diverse.
Jessica Lyons, who has a daughter in senior kindergarten at Dewson and another child starting in the fall, raised her objections to the hot-lunch program at the council meeting. Ms. Lyons said TDSB numbers show that about 15 per cent of Dewson students are from families with annual incomes of less than $30,000, and she worries that not enough consideration was being given to the barriers those children face in accessing a hot-lunch program. She put forward a motion recommending the school work toward an equitable food program. It was overwhelmingly supported and passed.
"If the school community has energy to accomplish something to benefit the kids, it must be something that all the kids can benefit from," Ms. Lyons said. "Kids can't learn as well if they are hungry and that's a real problem to solve, much more pressing than the drudgery of packing a lunch every day.
"This is about funnelling off and privatizing aspects of the education system, and I'm not into that."
Introducing a hot-lunch program at Dewson was raised several years ago, but did not gain traction. This time around, for more than two years, a small group of parents researched and worked on the logistics of bringing it to the school.
Ms. George said she and other parents are not objecting to expanding a subsidized program for families with limited budgets. A hot-lunch service is an optional program, she said, and not every family would sign up, regardless of their financial means.
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"Wouldn't it be wonderful if we had an opportunity to help feed those children and help those families by having an optional lunch program that has subsidized lunches and that's healthy and nutritious?" she asked.
Ms. George said she has heard from many single-parent families, who have told her how crunched for time they are and how a lunch program would help.
As for the inequality argument, Ms. George said that there are many other programs such as book fairs that cost money, and put the spotlight on inequities but are not contested.
"The minimal cost is no basis to stop the introduction of an optional hot lunch program at Dewson," Ms. George said.
David Farnell, co-owner of Real Food For Real Kids, said questions around equal access to the hot-lunch program have been raised at every school he's attended.
Mr. Farnell and his wife started the company in 2004 after seeing that food providers at their son's daycare were feeding children processed food. Today, the company feeds children in 272 daycares and 32 schools. On average, 6,500 hot lunches are produced daily in its kitchen. Elementary school children eat macaroni and cheese made with carrot puree for colour, and chicken nuggets, made with real chicken and crisped with flax seed and millet.
Mr. Farnell said his company provides schools with one free meal for every 20. Schools could take that free meal and provide two subsidized lunches instead.
"I fully respect and appreciate parents wanting to do something about the inequality early in life so the kids aren't as exposed to it until they are able to mature," he said. "Real Food for Real Kids is never going to level the playing field. But what we can do is, we can try to tilt it the best we can."
Kelly Gallagher-Mackay, who has a daughter attending Dewson, said that while she is not a fan of making lunches, public schools should stay away from fee-paying programs during the school day. She volunteered to be a member of the committee looking at how to make a hot-lunch program equitable at Dewson.
"We expect our public schools to treat all kids equally, regardless of income. In fact, if there is extra effort, that effort should be directed [toward] bridging gaps, not reinforcing them," Ms. Gallagher-Mackay said. "Programs offered by the school during the school day should be available to all children in the school regardless of the ability to pay."
Mike Brcic, a father of three children who attend Dewson, understands the motivation of parents to bring a universally accessible lunch to the school. However, he, Ms. George and other parents have found ways to mitigate those concerns through a subsidy program for struggling families that want a hot lunch but can't afford to pay full price.
Mr. Brcic has been working for more than two years to bring the hot lunch program into the school. He and his wife model a healthy lifestyle for their children. He introduced mashed up broccoli and Brussels sprouts as their first foods. Their lunches consist of cut-up vegetables, leftovers from dinner or a quinoa lentil salad.
He said that the argument made by some parents that children sitting next to each other with a hot lunch and one from home presupposes that they care. Will a child with a sandwich be jealous of the one eating a hot lunch that includes quinoa salad?
"A lot of our motivation is we are busy, stressed-out parents and this is one small thing that somebody could take off our plates and really just improve our lives and improve our kids' lives," he said.
"I share everybody's desire to see this rolled out in a way that's accessible to everyone, in spite of any financial obstacles," he said. "I actually would love to see Dewson as a model of how this could be made available to all kids."