Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?
All four gospels include the miraculous feeding of the 5,000, but only John specifies that the boy had barley loaves.
So what is the significance of the bread being barley bread?
In Palestine in those days, bread was an everyday staple. It was largely a subsistence economy. When Jesus taught his disciples to pray for “daily bread,” it was understood literally, as the bread needed to get through that day.
Bread was made either from wheat, or from barley. Barley loaves were of the lesser quality, and were the basic food of the poor.
So what Jesus turned into a feast for 5,000 people, was one poor boy’s meal: “five small barley loaves and two small fish.” I imagine a lunch that was fairly common at the country stores when I was a kid: sardines and crackers.
John’s point, I think, in emphasizing that they were barley loaves, was to note that what Jesus turned into a blessing for so many that day, was a very modest meal from a child, and a poor child at that.
As was so often the case with Jesus, he took something that society would have considered worthless or insignificant–in this case a poor child and his lunch– and turned it into something that would be a blessing to all.