Virus highlights existing inequalities

For now, food banks are a way to manage – moving forward, we need a new way of thinking about who our society is working for to bring about change, argues Mags O’Reilly

Thursday, 25th June 2020 — By Mags O’Reilly

Mags O'Reilly and Cllr Richard Cotton

Mags O’Reilly with Labour councillor Richard Cotton 

IN mid-March life changed for so many of us and at Highgate Newtown Community Centre it was with very heavy hearts that we stopped running all of our activities.

Within two weeks we had reopened as a Covid-19 response centre, located on the Whittington estate. Thanks to the tenants’ and residents’ association for the use of the Garden Room.

We teamed up with Shezan Renny, who is the campaigns manager for Camden Highgate Labour, and her ready-formed band of volunteers and we set to work. Over 50 other volunteers have joined since April.

“Going to someone’s door and seeing the genuine need that is there is eye-opening. I always thought that everyone was ok. I never realised that there was so much need.”

Other volunteers have had the same reaction when delivering a food parcel to one of the many doors we have visited in Highgate ward during lockdown.

The community has been vital to the success of the response team. Nothing could have been achieved without that community spirit, involvement and camaraderie that is all around us at the moment.

Generous donations have allowed us to respond to over 800 individual requests from residents. Our team of volunteers have distributed over 500 food parcels. And our emergency kitchen has provided hot food to over 50 people who have been isolating or recuperating.

Three weeks ago HNCC helped open a second food bank, with the assistance of the CNJ’s Dan Carrier and Streets Kitchen at Castlehaven Community Association.

Almost 200 food parcels have gone through the doors there. The focus of this food bank is to feed people but also to help communities grow in understanding of each other.

This is just our story. Many other communities like ours are also helping to provide relief all over Camden, working tirelessly to get help to those who need it. Community centres and community groups have opened food banks.

Streets Kitchen have been busier than ever, feeding homeless people every day and reporting ever-growing queues. Individuals are supporting food banks by organising food collections where they live; and groups like North London Community Aid, where Naomi and her team are generously helping to support over 15 food banks across north London.

Food banks are responding mainly to the food poverty that exists among us.

It is not a matter of pride to live in a country where the Trussell Trust records that they handed out 1.6 million food parcels in 2018/2019.

Food banks are a lifeline for many but a choice for no one.

They are being accessed by people who would never have dreamed it would happen to them. The self-employed, gig workers, carers, taxi drivers, actors, musicians, labourers, and many others, have found themselves wondering from where their next meal is coming.

When asked, a childminder said: “It was when June arrived, and I received the [universal credit] payment, feeling relieved I had some money to buy the basics. I paid my rent for the month and one phone bill, mine, not my daughter’s.

“I was shocked to discover I was left, on the second of June, with £200 till the end of the month, and I still haven’t paid all my bills. There is that sinking feeling, how am I going to manage this month?”

For now, food banks are a way to manage.

Moving forward, we need a new way of thinking about who our society is working for to bring about change.

There is an exciting conversation going on at looking at ways to improve society post Covid-19.

Connecting with volunteers and community members during this pandemic has shown that we all need to be more embedded within our community, to understand each other, and the needs that exist.

We know from speaking to over 500 people, so far, that many of the problems are deep-rooted and are worsened by the pandemic, not caused by them.

Covid-19 has highlighted the inequalities that already existed, and have for years. Now that we know, we have to do something.

The mutual aid groups have been fantastic, hard-working, and committed to making life easier for many.

Co-operation Kentish Town is helping people to set up food co-ops. Local organisations are talking to each other about how everyone can work together to make sure that no one in Camden is hungry.

We are no longer stuck in the present; now is the time to change the status quo. Now is our opportunity to forge a society of which we can be proud.

One that values the health of the country and the environment as an inherent part of every political and personal decision made, a society where everybody has their basic needs met.

By starting the conversation we can start the solution.

• Mags O’Reilly is Operations Manager for the HNCC Community Response Team. 


Highgate Newtown Community Centre is holding a fundraising event from July 3 to 10.

Their creative volunteers have donated work for an online auction, and these can be viewed at: from the third to the tenth, when bidding will end.

“Please have a look and if you see something that you like, place a bid. All money raised will go towards tackling food insecurity.”


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