Two women sitting holding a food co-op leaflet, at Camden Town Hall.
Fateha McDaniel and Caroline Nalwoga of Gospel Oak Cooporation Town at cost of living debate. Photo: Julia Gregory.

Women in Camden are skipping meals, turning off fire and smoke alarms to save electricity, and struggling to find work which fits round caring commitments as they are hit hard 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 on Thursday 26 April, at the first meeting of the full council in the newly refurbished Town Hall.

Nearly a third of Camden children are living in poverty and the number of children on free school meals has risen by 13 percent since 2018.

Mothers and carers are more likely to have responsibility for household budgeting, and are facing a headache heating their homes and putting food on the table.

It includes juggling budgets as costs increase with some women making sacrifices for their families as they struggle to cover the cost of food.

Lunches at the borough’s primaries cost £2.29 a day, so a family with two young children pay around £100 a month to feed their children. However low-income families above the threshold were not eligible for free school meals.

“Limiting eligibility for free school meals to household income below £7,400 is indefensible in a cost-of-living crisis,” states the report.

London mayor Sadiq Khan announced free school meals for primary school pupils in the next academic year. In February Camden council said it would fund primary school meals in a “permanent” move.

Uniforms cost an average of £242 a child and Camden Women’s Forum want to see the price drop.

The Forum 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 they 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 the cost-of-living crisis showed it no longer works.

Women told the forum the welfare system “is like a sticking plaster” and they are “still second-class citizens when it comes to work” and the barriers such as unaffordable childcare tackled.

Their research found that as women’s earnings are still lower than men’s they were already hit by economic inequalities when the crisis hit.

So far more women (71 percent) have applied for up £500 in support through the council’s hardship fund, with 61 percent of applicants from Black, Asian or other global majority backgrounds.

Women said they needed flexible working because the cost of childcare and bills can mean “going back to work isn’t worth it most of the time.”

They highlighted the misery of overcrowding, with sometimes seven people crammed into a two-bedroom flat.

Women said they were having to choose between doing activities for their children or food, as something had to give.

“If we do the activity we cannot eat, if we eat, we cannot do the activity,” one mother told the researchers.

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 school head John Hayes told councillors he had never imagined throughout his long career “that in our school we would have to set up a food bank in our school.”

He said some parents get supermarket shops delivered directly to school to help support families in need.

Parents are also asked to help contribute to school trips “if they can afford it” and the school ensures no child misses out on the rite-of-passage trip pupils go on.

Helene Reardon-Bond, one of Camden Women’s Forum co-chairs said: “In this crisis schools have come into their own as community hubs and signposting.”

However she pointed out “some schools do not have wealthy donors and parents do not have deep pockets. There will be a terrible divide for years to come.”

Fateha McDougal from Gospel Oak Cooporation Town, a food co-op, said it is setting up a community launderette to help people with fuel bills and using a disused plot of land to harvest fresh produce, with 12 community food hubs in the pipeline as part of its work supporting 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, encouraging employers, including itself to support flexible working and providing more training and education chances for women.

Camden has a £2mn cost-of-living crisis fund for those suffering extreme hardship.

Amongst other measures it put an extra £300,000 more into breakfast clubs in some of the borough’s most deprived communities.

People can find resources and advice from Camden Council’s cost of living support page, or by calling  020 7974 4444. Other sources of advice are Citizens Advice Camden on 0800 278 7835 and organisations in Camden Advice Network. Residents in Fitzrovia can seek housing and welfare advice from Fitzrovia Neighbourhood Association on 020 3984 6364 or email for more information.

Camden Council: Full Council — Wednesday 26 April 2023.

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