Hunger tour in Scarborough

Mel only talks about the Olympics because fixing this place is hard


Rating: NNNNN


Mayor Mel is crowing about his plan to rescue Toronto. What’s he got in that fuzzy head of his? He’s supporting a bid to build subsidized housing – for Olympic athletes.

We all have eight years to get our shotputting arms in shape. Or maybe synchronized swimming would be more appropriate for Torontonians – smiling while drowning.

While our leader is blowing bubbles, I’m riding bus 86 from Kennedy station to deepest Scarborough for a tour organized by the Food and Hunger Action Community Coalition.

Three Toronto councillors are also taking the tour, one of four they are attending to gather information to take back to council. How they expect to distract our international Olympics booster long enough to pay attention to the squalid realities of the megacity, I have no idea.

At the corner of Galloway and Kingston Road is the West Hill social services office. North of that, I pass the high-rises at Lawrence. Finally, an orange-topped concrete box comes into view. It’s not a “separate” school, but a public school named after Saint Margaret.

Standout politicos

In the staff room, I’m greeted by Cathy Cooke, a public health nurse and vice-chair of the Scarborough Hunger Coalition.

It’s easy to spot the politicians in the small crowd of health and community workers. Chris Korwin-Kuczynski of Parkdale is wearing his official Toronto Millennium jacket and working his handshake around the room.

Brad Duguid (pronounced “do good”) from Scarborough is exceedingly well groomed and talking on his cellphone. Pam McConnell, the elected representative of the Don River area and co-chair of the Food Policy Council, is the one to outline the challenges for “a city with little money,” which she quickly amends to “no money.”

Another Scarborough politician, David Soknacki, skips off after our first stop.

A boy student named Germaine and two sweet little girls in head scarves address the group on the importance of the snack program “to maintain healthy status in class.”

There are 51 Food for Thought snack programs run by 2,501 volunteers, feeding 14,000 students in schools across Scarborough, or the East Region, as it’s now tagged.

St. Margaret’s, which has several portable buildings, is operating at 140-per-cent capacity. Of its 500 students, more than 400 get their daytime meals from the school. Parents pay $5/month for the first child and $2 for every additional one so their children can receive food that is “nutritious (and) culturally and personally acceptable.”

In a tiny room, a woman named Susan prepares hundreds of sandwiches that are delivered to classrooms. An annual federal grant of $11,000, plus a few more grand from the province and city, go to purchase the bread, yogurt, juice and Nutrigrain bars consumed by the kids.

Bluebird bus

But it isn’t only children who need to eat to function mentally. I’ve gotten up seven hours earlier than usual to get here today, with no time or inclination to eat. Luckily, I’m not too proud to beg half a cheese-slice sandwich.

Aboard the Bluebird school bus, Cooke provides fact-filled commentary. Scarborough is the fastest-growing part of the megacity. It also has the highest percentage (27 per cent) of visible minority inhabitants in its population of 575,000.

Ten per cent of people speak Chinese, five per cent East Indian languages such as Tamil or Gujarati (a language of northwest India.) The exodus of manufacturers from Toronto has meant a loss of 24,000 jobs here.

We whiz past West Hill public school, which now serves the children of families living in the temporary shelter of motel rooms. Last year, 500 transient kids passed in and out of the school.

Now we’re on Morningside, north of the 401. Richard DeGaetano, area planner for the Community Social Planning Council and vice-chair of the Hunger Coalition, takes the microphone to lead us through the Malvern area.

Disaster area

Barely visible through the steamed windows are rows and rows of suburban houses and high-rises. And nothing else. This disaster area was built without giving any thought whatsoever to the quality of life of its eventual inhabitants. There isn’t even a corner store in sight. There are more mosques and churches than stores, and inadequate transit to the one mall serving 48,000 residents, 62 per cent of whom are immigrants.

The average annual income is $18,000-$23,000, so I doubt these people have the cars and barrels of gasoline this place requires. We later meet a woman who must spend 10 food dollars to get her groceries home in a taxi from the No Frills.

The schools in Malvern lack auditoria and gyms, and there are three youth workers for 20,000 youth. No wonder Mel chooses to concentrate on the Olympic Games. That’s easy. This place is hard.

Fahima Biglar of the Agincourt Community Services Association introduces the community kitchen we’ll be visiting. It’s not a soup line, but a “cooking club” at the Agincourt Community Centre.

Mothers and children are splashing in the centre’s pools. A hobo citizen seems to be positioned in view for our benefit, just to prove that, although lesbians have the slogan, it is poor people who truly are everywhere.

Banana cake

Upstairs in the kitchen, Anita Doyle and a dozen other ladies, or “girls,” as she calls them, are working on trays of roasted-vegetable lasagna. A banana cake sits cooling on the counter. Each woman contributes $2 to cook and eat at this monthly get-together, a social occasion for these women of various ages and backgrounds.

We drive by the “Always Growing Garden,” 40 community plots now resting beneath a blanket of snow. Donations of a gazebo and tools have been wheedled by a persuasive volunteer.

Mike Whittamore, whose farm borders Scarborough, donates bedding plants and straw. He also invites low-income families to come pick their own fruits and vegetables at his place, free of charge.

There are 23 motels on Kingston Road. The city has contracts with 11 of them to house 200 homeless families, 35 per cent of them newcomers to Canada. One place is owned by the city.

At St. Margaret’s in the Pines Anglican Church we get a bag lunch and listen to a series of moving speeches. Claudette, a middle-aged woman, describes how she and her family ended up in a motel shelter.

“Because we were evicted, we were left with no food. The law is to throw out all food, even canned food, frying pans, everything.”

A school-snack volunteer notes that when children of different cultures “break bread together,” racist incidents subside. An Out of the Cold volunteer questions just how long volunteers can be expected to provide the social services the government should be delivering.

Sylvia LeReverend of St. Ninian’s food bank, which has taken on the job of advocating for refugees, slams government caseworkers for giving incorrect or no information to claimants.

Suffers severely

From prenatal programs to Meals on Wheels, these “people of conscience” we met on the tour are coping with urban problems in a suburban setting that suffers severely from the lack of the kind of service infrastructure that’s established downtown. If I were in charge of the budget, they’d have as much money as they need.

As it is, I take home my carrot sticks from lunch to add to a 59-cent can of lentils that are never the bright-green colour Mr. Gouda promises on the label. (Add ginger and onion, serve on rice soya sauce optional.)

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