Plan to sell water to school kids going down the drain.

Plan to sell water to school kids going down the drain.

Last week, the Toronto District School Board’s plan to install bottle-less vending machines selling  water and “flavoured water”  to school children drew the approbation of their parents . http://www.parentcentral.ca/parent/article/777033--h-no-water-sale-in-schools-draws-fire

We have worked hard to get bans against bottled water over the last few years, especially in schools, and we have helped rid some of our most public spaces of this thin edge of the wedge of water commercialization. That the school board itself was planning to sell water from vending machines as an environmental benefit (the kids supply their own refillable bottle) is “outrageous” as Maude Barlow wrote after spotting the article in the Toronto Star.

A parent from Fern Avenue Elementary school invited me to the Parent Council meeting where the TDSB’s Business Development staff was to explain the project-ironically on “Bottled Water Free Day”.   I was not allowed to address the meeting but in the end, I didn’t need to- the parents already understood that buying water for fifty cents per refill was a poor lesson in consumerism that they would not accept.  One father spoke eloquently about growing up in a country where potable public water didn’t exist. He wanted his kids to understand how privileged they are to have fountains providing pure, free water in their school. Others spoke directly of the pressure to commercial public water and how their children were too young to understand the context of the “choice” they were being offered by this $10,000 vending machine with the photo of a smiling young woman on the front.

I learned of the tremendous budgetary pressures that have been building in our schools since former Premier Mike Harris “fixed” their funding structure. “You should have seen what we had in this school fifteen years ago!” exclaimed one parent.  Our schools are working on such a thin margin that the smart new regulations banning the sale of junk food in schools have removed an important revenue stream. If a new expenditure doesn’t pay for itself- something else must be cut.

This is no tempest in a refillable bottle. This fight over one machine in one elementary school is being watched closely. Tap water is under extraordinary pressure from corporate interests.  In Ontario where there is a $37 billion deficit in water infrastructure, the provincial government is quietly promoting a privatization agenda and the bottled water industry is offering money for blue box programs to municipalities that have banned the sale of bottled water- but only if they drop the ban.  The Council of Canadians recently met with the Ontario Teacher’s Federation who have invested in Chile’s privatized water system-ignoring the opinions of their members. http://www.canadians.org/water/issues/OTPP/index.html

At the end of the meeting the parents of the Fern Avenue Elementary School voted unanimously to reject the bottle-less water vending machine but this is far from over. It seems that our schools have become the front lines in the battle over public water.  Just around the corner at Parkdale Collegiate, another machine has been installed. I am looking forward to addressing the six hundred students of that high school at an assembly during Earth week next month.

- Mark Calzavara, Ontario-Quebec-Nunavut Regional Organizer