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Ontario ice storm-recovery food card program faced entirely predictable setbacks

Hundreds of people lined up for gift cards at the Eglington East Ontario Works office.

A strategy to help Ontarians recover from a powerful ice storm that knocked power out across the province ramped back up on Thursday, as the province promised to expand a program helping residents replace food that had spoiled during a days-long power outage.

Premier Kathleen Wynne announced a plan to get gift cards to affected residence earlier this week, thanks in part to donations from private businesses such as Loblaws and Sobeys.

The program itself seems to be a success, with $160,000 – nearly the full amount originally announced – snatched up on Tuesday. But from a publicity standpoint, things have gone less than perfect. Card shortages have been reported, limitations have been questioned and ire has been raised by those who don’t qualify.

"While not perfect, the program was put in place to get the gift cards to people as soon as possible, and the overwhelming response demonstrates the need that existed among people affected by the storm," Ontario’s Community Safety Minister Madeleine Meilleur said in a statement.

You know a program is facing serious issues when a prepared statement begins, "While not perfect…."

The amount of funding has since increased to $460,000, thanks to more private donations, and a larger number of cards are expected to be distributed Thursday and Friday. But that doesn't plaster over these entirely-predictable problems the program has already faced.

[ Related: Ontario government hands out food cards to ice storm victims ]

The gift cards were bound to run out, and when they did people were not pleased. Newstalk 1010 spoke with several would-be recipients who travelled to an Ontario Works office in Scarborough on Tuesday and found the cupboard bare. One man told the station he was given a business card and told to call back later, but not offered any assurance more would come available.

It wasn't immediately clear who was eligible. Is it everyone who lost power, or just those who lost food? And if so, how much food? Premier Kathleen Wynne suggested when the program was announced that it was intended for "those who have had to throw away food and those who are not able to replace their food."

A bulletin released on Thursday says people intending to collect a gift card should first check with their insurance companies to see if they will be compensated for lost food. While recipients are interviewed, an abundance of trust is still needed to make the program work: trust that they are not being otherwise compensated for their lost food, trust that they truly can't afford to replace the food themselves, even trust that they lost food in the first place.

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The timing wasn't great. Sometimes timing can't be helped, and planning takes time. The province managed to cajole several companies to donate significant resources before announcing the plan on Monday. By then it was more than a week after residents had first lost power, and most of those who lost food had likely replaced it. The real issue is that the food card program was announced on Dec. 30 and launched on Dec. 31, only to be put on hold because Ontario Works offices were closed on New Year's Day. Apparently no one was willing to come in on a day off for a good cause? Efforts ramped up again on Thursday, but any claim to immediacy has been undermined.

Gift card values were limited, and justifiably so. The province couldn't distribute large amounts to a few, and leave the rest to their fates. So card limitations of $50 per person and $100 per family were introduced, which enough to keep the taps flowing, but not enough to keep happy all those lucky enough to receive a card. How much food can a family buy for $100?

The program only launched in Toronto. Based on necessity and logistics, this may have been for the best but makes for bad optics. It was the most frequent comment on a recent Yahoo Canada News story (second was queries about why people didn't simply put their food in a snow bank), and a key complaint raised on Twitter.

An election is coming, possibly as soon as spring, and Liberal detractors already paint the government as Toronto-centric. Launching an ice storm recovery program in Toronto, with expansion to other towns TBD, likely doesn't help.

(Photo via Canadian Press)

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