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Barnet food banks part one – “Cooking a meal has become a luxury”

Investigative reporter Maya Sall takes an in depth look at Barnet’s food banks and their response to the cost of living crisis

A foodbank with a table full of containers of vegetables. A woman with a bag stand next to a container of potatoes - while a row of volunteers stand behind the table.
Volunteers and residents at Burnt Oak Community Food Bank – (Credit – Burnt Oak Community Food Bank)

At £41,000 a year, Barnet’s average household income is amongst the highest in London. Such salaries should indicate that the borough is well placed to avoid the worst of the cost-of-living crisis

However, inequalities within Barnet mean that, despite this affluence, poverty levels are around average for a London borough.

Given the impact of the increase in living crisis, it is not surprising that growing numbers of Barnet residents are finding themselves in situations of financial hardship and this is causing Barnet’s food banks to become overwhelmed and undersupplied.

This report digs deeper into the challenges facing the organisations doing their best to meet rising demand.  

Massive increase in food bank use

There is not a shortage of food banks in Barnet: Barnet Council lists 22 on its website

Some, like The Rainbow Centre in Chipping Barnet require a referral from the council or other proof of financial need. Others, like St Barnabas in North Finchley “work on a basis of trust and dignity” and don’t require vouchers. 

Of these 22 food banks, Barnet Post spoke with six, all of which offered a broad range of support, providing household items such as cleaning and personal hygiene products, clothes, debt and financial advice as well as food. 

Each foodbank had a system of operation tailored to its local community, but one issue united them all: the worsening struggle to meet their community’s needs. 

The increased reliance upon foodbanks is not unique to Barnet. Over the past decade, The Trussell Trust reported the number of people receiving three days’ worth of emergency food to have increased from 128,697 to over two million. 

2021/22 saw a drop in foodbank use following a peak reached during the early period of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020/21 but recent research suggests that numbers are now even higher than during the pandemic.

In line with these figures, the evidence on that ground is that Barnet’s food banks are helping an increasing number of people in crisis. 

“The demand for our services has skyrocketed”, Sarah and Steve of The Rainbow Centre told Barnet Post

“When people started going back to work as lockdowns were lifted, naturally we expected the demand to ease, but instead every week we’re seeing an increase in the number of people who come to us for help”. 

Over the past two years, Sarah and Steve estimate they’ve seen an increase from 30-40 to 75-100 people using their weekly foodbank – a trend also experienced by other food banks in Barnet. 

“Most of the individuals who come to us, a lot of them live in mutli-generational households with five, six or seven people,” says Steve. 

He adds:  “when you start doing the numbers, we’re well into the hundreds.” 

Trussell Trust hands out over 5,000 more food parcels in Barnet

These figures may seem shocking but maybe they shouldn’t, as Barnet has had significant numbers of residents living in poverty for a long time. 

Trust for London estimated that in 2019/20, 25% of Barnet’s population lived below the poverty line – 5% higher than the national average. In 2021, they also calculated that of those residents, 19.6% earned below the Living Wage

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In 2021/22, The Trussell Trust handed out 16,314 food parcels from its three distribution centres in the borough. This was before the cost of living crisis truly took hold and – with the effect of spiraling inflation, alongside wages and benefits failing to increase accordingly for the least well off. By 2022/23, the number had grown to 21705

Sarah from The Rainbow Centre explains it is the “residents that hovered just on that bread line [and] could afford the basics, the bread, the milk,” two or three years ago, that now “have to sacrifice something else on the shopping list to afford those items”.

Despite making sacrifice after sacrifice, an ever increasing number of Barnet’s residents are running out of items they can choose to go without, and, as a result, are finding themselves in need of emergency support. 

“People are asking for meals they can cook in a microwave”

Due to these sacrifices, Barnet’s food banks must not only alter what food they provide to their users, but also the ways that they supply it. 

“More people are coming to us and asking for meals that they can cook in the microwave,” says Jan Brennan, of Colindale Communities Trust.

“Gas and electricity – it’s become a luxury,” she adds.

When Barnet Post asks Jan whether this winter saw more local residents facing the question of ‘heat or eat’ – whether to eat or heat their homes – she responds that, for many, the situation has moved beyond that: 

“it’s not just about ‘do I put my heating on or feed my children?’ – forget heating, you’re always going to feed your children. But now it’s cooking, cooking a meal has become a luxury.”

In an attempt to tackle this, Colindale Communities Trust has set up a ‘community fridge’, which serves frozen ready meals that people can defrost and heat up in their microwave, saving them the expense of using their oven. 

However, it is not only the cost of running kitchen appliances which is becoming difficult – in the most extreme cases, families in Barnet simply cannot afford them. As Sarah from The Rainbow Centre explains: “we had one girl tell us ‘my mummy has a wooden fridge’”. She adds: “we’re lucky, we’ve got vouchers that we can give people to help them buy white goods like a fridge, or a microwave.” 

Other food banks have had to diversify the resources they provide in other ways. 

The Burnt Oak Community Foodbank was established in early 2021, and with a particular focus on assisting the area’s growing population of asylum seekers. 

“They [asylum seekers] get a voucher for £30 a week,” says the food bank’s founder, Deepa Chauhan. 

She adds: “that amount of money hardly even covers a food shop – let alone clothes, heating, rent, travel fares, phone credit – the very basics that are needed to survive and maintain a job in London today.” 

In an attempt to combat this, Burnt Oak Community Food bank has expanded from distributing only food and household goods, to books, clothes, school uniforms, even football shoes and children’s halloween costumes. 

As living costs rise and the quality of life for many of Barnet’s residents decreases, Barnet’s food banks are doing all they can to ensure their users are sheltered from the worst of the storm. 

However, this is an increasingly uphill battle. Part two of this report will look at the increasing difficulties food banks face when working with supermarkets. 

Maya Sall has written this report as part of The Centre for Investigative Journalism’s Collaborative Community Journalism programme, which is funded by Trust for London.

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