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Barnet food banks part three: “the whole system is broken”

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

Seventy pence in twenty pence and five pence pieces in British money
Photo by Sarah Agnew on Unsplash

Part one of this report looked at the changing needs of Barnet residents who are increasingly turning to food banks for help as the cost of living crisis deepens, while part two looked at the challenges food banks face in meeting these needs. Part three looks at the wider economic context. 

It is clear that the problems for Barnet’s food banks are beyond the ability of Barnet Council or any other individual local agency to solve. 

“The whole system is broken” says Helen from St Barnabas food bank, as she tells Barnet Post about the community she supports in North Finchley, which includes many people who are unable to work due to health reasons. 

She adds: “There’s a whole raft of people that can’t work, but the PIP system is broken, the mental health system is broken… people feel that if they go to these services, they won’t be believed, and they are put off by that.”

Helen’s frustration was echoed at all the food banks I’ve spoken to, with the teams at every organisation acknowledging that more people would be using their services if there was less stigma attached to asking for help. 

Foodbank usage has been on the rise since the post-2010 chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, introduced the cuts to (many areas of) public spending often described as “austerity”.

However – despite recent reports of thousands of people being hospitalised with malnutrition – Conservative politicians have often been dismissive of food bank users. 

The Ashfield MP Lee Anderson, who was appointed deputy chairman of the Party in February, has been particularly vocal on the issue. 

Early this year, he claimed food bank users: “waste money on booze and fags” after previously claiming it was possible to cook meals for 30p

More recently, the Spring Budget included the announcement of a tougher approach to benefits claimants, with chancellor Jeremy Hunt declaring that: “sanctions will be applied more rigorously to those who fail to meet strict work-search requirements or choose not to take up a reasonable job offer.”

According to the Office for National Statistics, as of December 2022, 20,600 people in Barnet are unable to work due to long-term illness. That’s one third (32.5%) of the borough’s non-working population, over 10% more than the London average of 19.5%. 

These statistics suggest that there are disproportionate numbers of vulnerable residents in Barnet who will not benefit from a government drive to get people back into work – and will continue to rely on food banks for support. 

“It’s those who need the most help, and are the most vulnerable, who are falling through the cracks” says Jan Brennan from Colindale Communities Trust.

It is clear that the backbone of Barnet’s food banks are the donations they receive from the local community. 

All the food banks Barnet Post spoke to enthused about the generosity of people in their neighbourhoods, Helen told me: “it’s those who have the least that give the most” adding “we’ve always been incredibly lucky with the support we’ve received from the community, we have regular donors and volunteers and without their support, we simply would not be able to run.” 

However, many food banks also mentioned that they have seen a drop in individuals popping in with weekly small donations. The overall picture is that, as economic challenges lead to escalating demand and unprecedented pressure on Barnet’s food banks, those same challenges mean people have less to spare and, as a result, public donations have dwindled. 

The drop in public donations has come at a cost for Barnet’s food banks or, more specifically, the people who run them – with several of the food bank organisers telling Barnet Post that they have been delving into their own pockets to buy supplies, or pay their building’s electricity bill. 

According to the Trussell Trust: “so far this year food banks have spent on average almost £1,400 a month of their own funds topping up food donations, this is a significant increase on the previous year, when food banks were spending just over £750 a month on average.” 

This may be a short-term fix, but it is evidently unsustainable for food banks to continue to rely on financial donations or, in a growing number of cases, volunteers funding activities from their own bank accounts.

While everyone Barnet Post spoke to for this investigation seemed positive about the future of their organisations, the situation seems highly concerning and uncertain. 

Barnet can’t afford to lose its food banks but – as demand increases and resources decrease – it may be close to the point where it can’t afford to keep them going. 

A list of food banks in Barnet is available here

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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