Committee votes to waive municipal kitchen fees for food insecurity group

(Gazette file photo)
JASON PARKS

STAFF WRITER

The Committee of the whole has denied a staff recommendation and chosen to waive fees in 2019 for a local group fighting food insecurity who utilize kitchen space at the Picton and Wellington Community Centres.

Members of the horseshoe ultimately chose to waive the kitchen fees for the Food to Share group while still encouraging the group to apply for funding in a $20,000 food insecurity grant envelope that was set aside in the 2019 County of Prince Edward municipal budget process.

The issue before the Committee Thursday dated back to a meeting on July 26, 2018, where Food to Share requested Council waive the rental fees for the Picton and Wellington Community Centre kitchens for the group’s fight of food insecurity in Prince Edward County.

Athol Councillor Jamie Forrester. (Jason Parks/Gazette Staff)

Utilizing this kitchen space allows the group’s volunteers to undertake a number of activities including canning fresh produce during the growing and harvesting seasons and presenting the preserved goods to food banks in Picton and Wellington.

According to a report authored by municipal staff, the County typically addresses these types of requests from local not-for-profit organizations through its community grants program.

This process was established as a method of supporting community organizations whose work aligns with the municipality’s identified priorities. The County has encouraged any organizations fighting food insecurity to seek access to grants and in-kind facility access through this program.

Based on the operating uncertainties created by waiving an undetermined amount of user fees, and given a) the cost recovery mandate of the community centres, b) the $20,000 budget allocation to help fight food insecurity, and c) concerns about the precedent it would set for other organizations and initiatives, staff recommended denying Food to Share’s request and instead direct them to the new funding set aside specifically for food security initiatives in the 2019 budget.

But councillors locked on to the term ‘deny’ and the group making the request in the form of Food to Share and found the verbiage of the motion unpalatable.

In calling on fellow councillors to deny the motion, Jamie Forrester noted the report indicated there would be problems and challenges in for other bookings of the commercial kitchen space but said the food insecurity issue trumped whatever difficulties the municipal staff had in trying to allocate kitchen time.

This is going to be difficult but we’ve go big problems and we’ve got groups like Food to Share trying to solve it for us. It will be problematic and cause inconveniences but I want to see these kitchens made available. There’s people in this County who can’t afford to feed themselves and that’s a big problem,” Forrester commented.

Bill Roberts recognized that this was a well intended staff recommendation but said he couldn’t agree a more with Forrester.

Sophiasburgh Councillor Bill Roberts (Jason Parks/Gazette Staff)

According to Roberts, this current council, previous councils, and new councils are going to make decisions that involve millions of dollars and many of them will defy economic logic.

That’s because they are political decisions that are responsive to the chattering classes and sensitive and aware of vocal public interest groups,” Roberts said. “The working poor, the hungry, the disadvantaged, they don’t have those leverage points. I’m very uncomfortable with this recommendation, I feel it’s nickel and diming the very disadvantaged in our community.”

He added the loss of bookings that amount to less than $1,000 was really a non starter in the war on food insecurity in Prince Edward County.

Mayor Steve Ferguson said he recently attended an appreciation event organized by Food to Share that celebrated the activities of the volunteers that work in the organization.

From its formation from a $1,000 Awesome PEC grant in 2015, over 15,000 meals had been prepared by those that needed them.

I would not support this motion,” Ferguson said. “We want to make sure the right message goes out to volunteers and volunteer organizations in this community. They need to know we have their back. I appreciate staff’s intention but there’s a great opportunity for us to come up with a bit more kinder response and embraces what Food to Share is trying to do.”

But some other councillors including Ernie Margetson and John Hirsch read the original motion slightly differently and saw the latter portion of the motion that called Food to Share and other groups fighting food insecurity to apply for support for in-kind use of Community Centre Kitchens through the Municipal Community Grants Program to which an additional $20,000 was allocated in 2019 for food security initiatives.

In explaining the motion further , Director of Community Development & Strategic Initiatives Neil Carbone said that municipal staff in no way intended to say there wasn’t value in Food to Share request for the waiving of the fees but was directing the group to make the application for funds through the grant process.

At that point, the grant funding could be used for a number of channels in the shifting landscape and developing mechanisms that address food insecurity.

Those might include booking space, food storage and kitchen time at the County Food Hub once the facility at Sophiasburgh Central School comes online later this year for example.

That solution could potentially serve the organization better than municipal kitchen use.

Through the grant process we can provide in kind support where we are transferring dollars from one area of our budget to another and there’s minimal offset of manpower costs to the County but then there’s transferring dollars for rental opportunities to outside facilities,” Carbone said.

Carbone explained staff was concerned about setting precedent and getting away from a prescriptive process.

We are making a recommendation that points the request to that funding set aside by council through a defined process as opposed to dealing with it on an ad hoc basis,” Carbone added.

Other grants and funds are coming online including a Rural Ontario Institute Grant that deals with food bank operations and the distribution of food to the food insecure.

That’s something that’s happening right now and part of our rationale was that making any type of long term decision without knowing what this issue might look like in an year would be premature,” Carbone said. “If you do pass an alternative motion, it would be our suggestion it would be limited to this year because there could be a brand new mechanism in the future.Some of the challenges mentioned by Food to Share could be addressed through the funding as its made available.”

With the original motion lost, Roberts made the motion to waive the fees incurred by Food to Share and still encourage groups fighting food insecurity to apply for the $20,000 food insecurity.

The motion passed.