Expired canned food and stale mac and cheese may not sound healthy, but they're everyday menu choices at the 30 drop-in centres across Toronto that serve food to the homeless.
"It's getting to the point where people aren't sure about what they're eating," says Street Health community support worker Kari Gregorio. "The vegetable platter we made [the other day] didn't even have vegetables in it."
Gregorio is spearheading an effort to get the city to boost the centres' funding to $500,000 a year so drop-ins can provide more nutritious menu selections. The current budget provides them with $102,000 a year, which breaks down to a little more than $62 a week per centre.
On Tuesday, January 24, a coalition of advocates invited members of council to partake of lunch at one drop-in centre. Councillors Jane Pitfield and Pam McConnell came to the event, and budget advisory committee vice-chair Joe Mihevc braved the pasta and suspect chicken, which he says reminded him of his college days.
"It's something you can live on for a short time, but I don't think you could call this a nutritious meal," he says.
The Liberals' cuts to the Special Diet Allowance and the implementation of the city's From The Street Into Homes strategy both axed resources for food, emphasizing instead the need to help people find permanent housing.
Kathy Hardill, a Regent Park nurse practitioner, argues that if the quality of food continues to decline, malnourishment will increase. "Those with medical conditions don't have a choice - they eat what they find," says Hardill, who keeps an office cupboard full of food for her patients.
At Parkdale Activity Recreation Centre, 100,000 meals were served last year, a 300 per cent increase since 2002, says drop-in director Bob Rose.
"We were reaching pretty serious capacity issues," he says. But "more funds aren't the solution. The solution is raising income and assistance rates."
The issue goes back to budget committee later this month. "We just have to find the money," says Mihevc. "But we're so far behind in terms of budget, everything's at risk."
Ire over idling buses
Residents fuming about city-owned vehicles and TTC buses idling their engines in residential areas and near schools may get relief. They'll just have to wait till the fall of 2007.
That's when the city and TTC hope to have devices installed that will automatically stall vehicles that idle for more than three minutes.
Regretfully, bylaw officers are providing hit-and-miss enforcement of the anti-idling law, for which violaters can be fined up to $5,000.
TTC chair Howard Moscoe says inspectors "don't like to write tickets against their own vehicles." But the TTC head admits he receives more complaints about "buses running at the end of the loop and neighbours having to breathe the fumes" than about any other topic. "There's no excuse [for it]," says Moscoe.
So why isn't the city policing its own fleet? "We operate on a complaint basis, and most often the driver takes off before we get there. But if we get a licence plate number we follow up," says Angie Antoniou, right-of-way manager for transportation services.
The Toronto Environmental Alliance thinks the city is taking a step in the right direction, but says car manufacturers should take the initiative by installing idling shut-off devices.
"These are the kinds of measures we're going to have to take," says Kim Fry, TEA's acting climate and smog campaigner, to deal with the mounting number of smog days.