Women in Camden are skipping meals, turning off fire alarms to save electricity and struggling to find work that fits around caring commitments during the cost-of-living crisis.
Their experiences were highlighted by a report starkly titled ‘It’s becoming a luxury to live’ by the Camden Women’s Forum and discussed at a themed debate at the council.
Nearly a third of Camden children are living in poverty, with the number using free school meals rising by 13 per cent since 2018.
Mothers and carers are more likely to have responsibility for household budgeting as costs increase, and the Forum found some women are making difficult sacrifices for their families, with food in particular posing a big challenge.
Lunches at the borough’s primaries cost £2.29 a day, so a family with two young children pays around £100 a month to feed their children.
However, low-income families earning more than the £7,500 threshold are not eligible.
In February, Camden Council said it would fund primary school meals in a “permanent” move.
Uniforms cost an average of £242 per child and Forum members want to see a price drop.
They spoke to 100 women and organisations working with communities across the borough for their research.
Women told them they felt “left behind, isolated and trapped in a system that did not want or work for them”.
According to a YouGov survey, women are more likely to go without meals to ensure others eat.
The Forum said welfare and employment policy is stuck in a model of a male breadwinner “earning a sufficient income to provide for women and children” but that the cost-of-living crisis has shown it no longer works.
It heard from women that the welfare system “is like a sticking plaster” and they are “still second-class citizens when it comes to work”.
So far, more women than men have applied for up to £500 in support through the council’s £2m hardship fund, with 61 per cent of applicants from Black, Asian or other Global Majority backgrounds.
Women said they need flexible working because the cost of childcare and bills can mean “going back to work isn’t worth it”.
Many said they were having to choose between doing activities for their children or food.
“If we do the activity, we cannot eat, and if we eat, we cannot do the activity,” one mother said.
In moving testimony, women described how soaring food prices mean they are going without, and their weight is dropping “not on purpose but because of the money – as long as my son eats”.
Gospel Oak primary headteacher John Hayes told councillors he had never imagined that his school would need to set up a food bank.
He said some parents get supermarket shops delivered directly to school to help families in need.
Parents are also asked to contribute to school trips “if they can afford it” so the school can ensure that no child misses out on a “rite-of-passage trip”.
Helene Reardon-Bond, one of Camden Women’s Forum’s co-chairs, said: “In this crisis, schools have come into their own as community hubs and [with] signposting.”
However, she pointed out that “some schools do not have wealthy donors and parents do not have deep pockets”, adding: “There will be a terrible divide for years to come.”
Fateha McDougal from Gospel Oak Corporation Town said it is setting up a community launderette and using a disused plot of land to harvest fresh produce, with 12 community food hubs in the pipeline as part of its work to support 1,000 residents.
One woman told the Forum: “Coming together, we can change something. Everyone is having a hard life. When we come together, we can change something.”
The council said it has taken steps to help struggling families, including setting up a school uniform fund, and encouraging employers to follow in its footsteps by supporting flexible working and providing more training and education chances for women.
People can find resources and advice at camden.gov.uk/costofliving, or by calling 020 7974 4444.
Other sources of advice are Citizens Advice Camden on 0800 278 7835 and organisations in Camden Advice Network at cam