Provincial Update: “Where do you steal your toilet paper?”(Reflections about life on social assistance)

A headshot of Joel Harden.
Joel Harden. Kitchissippi Times file photo.

Submitted by Joel Harden, MPP for Ottawa Centre

Lately, I’ve been talking a lot about an appeal to double social assistance rates. The appeal came from five MPPs (myself included) who pledged to live on a $47 food budget for two weeks. Why?

We need a basic income that treats people with respect, and doesn’t waste money on legislated poverty for 900,000 folks on Ontario Works (OW) and the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP).

(To recap: doubling social assistance in Ontario would cost about $8 billion, but the societal costs of poverty are at least triple that amount). 

Not long ago, I visited the Parkdale Food Centre’s “Coffee and Conversation” breakfast that runs on Wednesdays from 9 a.m.-10 a.m. at 30 Rosemount Ave. This program is a lifeline for folks on social assistance seeking a decent meal and companionship. 

While talking to the neighbours attending the breakfast, I met Pat, who knew about our appeal to double social assistance rates. 

So I asked Pat how he survives on such a limited food budget. As he formulated a response, a man down the table shouted this: 

“$47 a week eh? Where do you steal your toilet paper?” He got the table’s attention.  

The point was effectively made. Some have questioned if a $47 weekly food budget reflects the experience and cost of legislated poverty. So I listened further to understand. 

That’s when Chantal, an OW recipient, added this: “The only way to survive is to know where to find free food. I look at Loblaws for food they give away. I come here. You make the rounds.” 

Natalie, an ODSP recipient, said she came to the Parkdale Food Centre from Lowertown, a significant commute. “But it’s worth it,” she said. “And not only for the food. I started coming here six months ago. And when I don’t come, someone calls to see how I’m doing.”  

As we discussed the value of companionship, we also talked about screen time for kids, and diminishing eyesight with age (I’ve just started with reading glasses). It didn’t feel like a soup kitchen, it felt like being at a breakfast table with friends. 

“And that’s the point,” said Simon, Parkdale’s Community Kitchen Manager. “Everyone deserves good food. This is a space that treats everyone like neighbours, and always with respect.” 

Parkdale also has shopping for free produce, and opportunities to learn culinary skills. They aren’t keen about the charity approach used for folks living in poverty. 

“Joel,” Simon said. “Think of what we could do across the city.” 

“Many city buildings have industrial-grade kitchens that are empty most of the time. What if we found public money to staff these kitchens, train volunteers, and produce delicious food?”

That sounds like a project worth embracing: a community kitchen movement to ensure everyone gets a tasty meal. 

If you have a moment, write me a note at and let me know what you think.

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