the coal face of Sydney’s cost of living crisis
Casey Forbes, 32, lives with her partner in neighboring Miller. They are trying to feed seven children between the ages of 13 and five months. According to Forbes, the family’s weekly grocery bill has gone from about $350 to $600 in a few years. “A box of chips used to be five dollars, now you pay about ten dollars. It’s pathetic,” she says.
Forbes partner works but has short-time work after an accident; she receives parental allowance, which depends on his income. “Places like this help me and my family tremendously,” she says. “If it hadn’t been for them, I would probably be at the Scheißbach.”
Parkes also has seven children, ranging in age from three to 27. She began the service during the COVID lockdowns, handing out free bread at the end of her driveway. The booth consisted of a bright yellow gazebo she won on Facebook and a pair of trestles her husband bought at Bunnings.
She later opened a hot meal service in the local park and then found a small permanent spot in Sadleir next to the primary school where the community café will soon be celebrating its first birthday. The service operates four days a week from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. — or when they run out of food.
The café’s stock consists largely of leftovers from nearby Woolworths supermarkets or from Second Bite and Coles, a food rescuer, or other donations. Local pasta makers chop Crostoli King into 50 meals a week. Each day, customers are entitled to a maximum of six grocery items, three fridge items, two beverages, two frozen meals and one meat pack, and unlimited bread.
Parkes often starts around 8am, picking up food at Woolworths or picking it up from one of their volunteer drivers, and setting up the cafe. She has about 18 volunteers in total, and when the herald Visit on a Friday morning, 10 working hard to open the doors.
Ron Fletcher, a former Salvation Army worker who was bored in retirement, is moving 75 kilograms of bread off pallets onto the shelves. From what he can see, the cost of living is getting “very bad”.
“Things go up 6, 7, 8 percent, pension goes up 2 percent. Sooner or later, they just can’t afford it anymore,” he says. “We get new people every day. Soon it will be too big.”
Queues are also getting longer for the Rev Bill Crews Foundation, which now operates four Loaves and Fishes restaurants, serving 1600 free meals a day in Ashfield, Liverpool, Campbelltown and Lethbridge Park.
And the clientele has expanded well beyond the old core of rough sleepers to include people on public housing and on welfare, the working poor, children and mothers escaping domestic violence. “We kind of went from taking care of the homeless to feeding the hungry,” says Crews.
Crews, who turns 80 next year, remains hopeful the federal government could do something meaningful to tackle poverty – like lifting pay for jobseekers – in Tuesday’s budget.
“More than twenty years ago, I could make governments feel guilty by putting out story after story. Now they’re fighting back,” he says. “There’s a mantra, the best form of welfare is a job, and that’s really true. But there is no point in getting people to look for work because most of them are looking for work anyway.”
Treasurer Jim Chalmers has repeatedly said the budget will help lower the cost of living for the most vulnerable, but says the government can’t do everything it would like to do right away and he wants to avoid inflation rising any further.
Chalmers has not confirmed reports that the rate will only be raised for those over 55, or a report on Sunday that it will increase JobSeeker by $40 every two weeks for everyone. Last month, the government’s Advisory Committee on Economic Inclusion, chaired by former Labor Secretary Jenny Macklin, recommended a “significant” increase in jobseeker payments and other working-age payments as a top priority.
Kirsty Parkes, who testified in a recent Senate cost-of-living inquiry, says Chalmers – and every politician – should pay a visit to her café in Sadleir.
“The only way I can describe it to people is to say, come out and see it. Come and see what we’re doing,” she says. “We definitely need to take action. If you don’t want to do something, you have to approach it from a different angle.”
On Friday after herald‘s visit, Parkes eventually broke her previous one-day record of 195 visitors, with 232 people pouring through the doors.
It was a mammoth day for her team and Parkes got home at 9 p.m. But she knows the number will continue to rise.
“I don’t really aspire to be anything other than helpful,” she says. “I want to leave the world better than I found it.”
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