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All seven PCNs in the London Borough of Barnet are registered to refer their patients to receive food bank support, Pulse PCN has learnt.
The programme, led by Barnet Social Prescribing Service, has seen 40 patients referred for food bank support between April to June of this year alone: 20 times greater than the two referrals made in July to September 2021, before the cost-of-living crisis took full effect.
Barnet GPs who recognise a patient might need help covering food costs can refer them to one of 24 social prescribers in the borough to assess their reason for needing support.
Social prescribers then offer patients food vouchers to one of more than 10 food banks across the borough, including those in churches or mosques or run by the Trussell Trust, which has sites across the UK, at no cost to the PCN.
The food bank referral is a gateway for general practices to address wider social issues facing their patients, Barnet Social Prescribing Service said.
In 2019/20, a quarter (25%) of people in Barnet lived in households with an income less than 60% of the UK median. The food bank service has been running since 2019.
Patients in employment referred to food banks
Common reasons for a patient requiring food support include late benefit payments or low income, but the steep rise in inflation and its impact on housing costs has also driven people who are employed to the service, social prescribers have said.
Emma Hatfield, a social prescriber at PCN 4, Barnet, said demand for the service had initially increased during the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, but has worsened in the years since with the cost-of-living crisis tantamount to a ‘perfect storm’.
She said: ‘What has really struck me is the amount of people who are in work that are having to access food banks because they can’t afford their basics. That is really striking, especially with the number of parents who say they are skipping or reducing meals so that their children can eat.’
The annual rate of inflation reached 11.1% in October 2022, falling to 6.8% as of July 2023 but remaining higher than the 2% target the Bank of England is attempting to reach.
Caitlin Bays, the social prescribing manager at Barnet Social Prescribing Service, said many patients referred to a link worker who will then go onto a food bank will have presented with other compounding concerns.
‘Somebody might come in for mental health or because they’re concerned about housing but when they actually start talking to you, you realise that they need the food bank.’
Ms Bays also said: ‘Likewise, people might come back [for food support] more regularly and then we know to have a conversation about how sustainable their finances are, and what we can do to support that. We can get an impression of what is likely a bigger problem.’
Each patient referred to a social prescriber is offered up to six consultations which will be used to signpost them to services that can help manage debt or benefits.
A referral to a food bank is often just the starting point for supporting a patient, Ms Hatfield said.
‘Having those wider conversations means we can get an idea of how they came to be in the situation they are in and for how long they’ve been in it. We can refer them on to other agencies that can support them in the long term.’
Patients and GPs now ‘tuned in’ to social issues
Ms Hatfield said that patients have begun approaching general practices in Barnet specifically to be referred to the social prescriber service.
She said: ‘As it has become more widely known that social prescribers do generate the food vouchers, more people have come into the surgeries specifically to ask for the social prescribing service for those food vouchers, which is not something that really happened before.’
Ms Hatfield added: ‘I think it is indicative of surgeries becoming generally more involved the wider healthcare inequalities that people are experiencing, and becoming more tuned into what we can do to help.’
Through social prescribing the GP practices have placed staff in community spaces allowing a new avenue for communication between patients and the practice, particularly with those groups who may not typically present to practice.
‘Barnet’s historically had a wide range of refugee and asylum seekers. Those housed in hotels get food, but a lot of the food provision is not always great. [Through community work] we detected the need for support there,’ Ms Bays said, adding that social prescribers will refer them for support from the New Citizens Gateway service, Migrant Help and Red Cross.
The chair of NHS Confederation’s primary care advisory group, Professor Aruna Garcea, said: ‘The scheme demonstrates the positive impact of the new roles in primary care networks. Further it also illustrates how PCNs are a catalyst for collaboration in general practice, as well as being a pillar in the community, by addressing – and responding to – local population health needs and playing a key role in joining up services across the NHS and voluntary sector.
‘However, this is also an example of how the social determinants of health impact demand for primary care services. In the midst of a cost of living crisis and as we face another challenging winter it is vital that we continue to invest in and commit to PCNs in the long-term, so we can continue to meet clinical needs of the patients and wider needs of their local communities.’
There is no cost to the PCN for referring a patient, with the price of the food voucher picked up by the food bank.
The seven PCNs serve a total population of around 425,000 people. The PCNs in Barnet include PCN 1D, PCN 1W, PCN 2. PCN 3, PCN 4, PCN 5, PCN 6.
Barnet Social Prescribing Service – which is a part of Age UK Barnet – is commissioned by Barnet’s PCNs to manage and recruit their social prescribers.