In Phil's own words:
"For as long as I can remember, work has always come pretty easy to me. Working as a painter and decorator on New South Wales' Sapphire Coast, I'm pretty well known and I've been lucky enough to say I've never had to advertise my business to get work or do without. Down here, word of mouth is king.
Up until now, I'd been pretty fortunate that work had been so steady. I'm a single father to two girls, a 13-year-old and a 7-year-old, and as their full-time carer, I can tell you girls of this age are expensive. They eat and eat, and of course, they want nice things like all kids do. I don't think the concept of money enters the picture until you start having to spend your own and you come to understand how hard it is to make it, and how easily it flies out of your wallet.
I felt the impact of COVID-19 almost immediately. A lot of people lost their jobs and those who had money wanted to hold onto it because no one knew what was going to happen next. Work slowed right down, but then injury and illness meant I could no longer take whatever few jobs were coming in; I had to stop. I have torn rotator cuffs - the muscles and tendons that surround the shoulder joint - as a result of my diabetes. I've been on a waitlist for surgery for six months now and I have no idea what the future is going to look like on the other side of it. Will I be able to work again? Will I be able to find another job? Everything is uncertain.
I've always prided myself on being able to stay on top of bills – not often easy when you're a single parent – but once I stopped working, things became financially tough pretty quickly. Centrelink benefits are appreciated, but it's not the best money and making ends meet isn't easy. Somehow you have to find money to pay rent and bills, and still find ways to keep your kids clothed and fed. I was struggling, but being a person who'd always done everything himself, I didn't ask for help. I just tried to keep my head above water.
"Will I be able to work again? Will I be able to find another job? Everything is uncertain."
One day I got a call from my younger daughter's school asking if I could pop in. When I got there, a food hamper from Foodbank was waiting for me. I don't know how it happened; the school knew of my situation so I suspect they made calls. The hamper was filled with everything we would need: cereals, pasta, tins of spaghetti. I was so thrilled and relieved that I went back home and sent them a thank-you email. They got in touch and soon, another hamper made its way over to me.
Often, I do my shopping at the Foodbank pantry, which offers food at drastically reduced prices and freebies you can throw in your trolley. If I go down for milk, bread and cheese, for example, they might throw in some meat for free or direct me to the free food shelf. I can't tell you how much of a difference Foodbank has made to my life. Their hampers free up money I can then put into paying the bills or buying clothes for my kids. And it's a nice feeling knowing I don't have to worry about my girls going hungry; they go to school with full bellies and that makes me happy.
With Christmas around the corner, all I can feel is worry. I'm not sure what we'll do for food or for presents. At this point, I'm thinking about taking a simple BBQ chook down to the beach, but it's hard to know what our situation will look like by then. What can I say? Like any other parent, I just want to give my kids a good Christmas."
John Robertson, the CEO of the NSW-ACT branch of Australian charity Foodbank, says that as food insecurity continues to grow in Australia, Phil's story is becoming increasingly common.
Robertson explains, "Foodbank has been around for 29 years and every year the number of people living with food insecurity has grown."
In fact, Foodbank has reported a 20 percent increase from food relief requests before the pandemic, with three in 10 Australians now experiencing food insecurity for the first time.
"This year, with the drought, bushfires and the pandemic, the growth has been considerable and we're talking about people who never would have expected to have found themselves in this position, from those who got sick and couldn't work, to overseas students who can’t access JobKeeper or JobSeeker, to those who poured their life savings into a new business venture which was felled by COVID-19."
Foodbank sources more than 40 million kilograms of food annually for its network of 2,400 charity partners and 2,500 schools.
"Food is something that lightens the load," says Robertson.
"We know from research the positive impact food has on our mental health and when you meet these families, they say, 'If your belly is full, your head is clear and when your head is clear, you have what it takes to start looking at next steps',” he says, adding that the food they give is of high quality. "When they throw open their pantry doors, they'll feel good about the healthy, branded foods that are in there. It's about giving them their dignity as well."
With Christmas mere weeks away, financial stress is threatening many households. Foodbank is doing their part, getting together an additional 20,000 Christmas hampers on top of the 90,000 hampers they've already given this year to those doing it tough.
Anyone needing assistance can contact Foodbank, which will put you in touch with a charity partner. If you're in a position to donate to help fellow Aussies like Phil, you can also do so via their website. "If 2020 has taught us anything, it's that Phil's situation can happen to any one of us," reminds Robertson. "If it did, wouldn't you want others to be looking out for you too?"
*Surname withheld for privacy reasons.