Food for thought
With funding from the Freemasons, Magic Breakfast wants to give underprivileged children in the north west of England the right ingredients to start their day
'In the sixth richest economy in the world, you’d think this couldn’t possibly be happening. But it is,’ says Carmel McConnell, founder of the charity Magic Breakfast.
Nearly one in five children in the UK suffers from food insecurity, according to Unicef, meaning their families lack secure access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food. ‘And the government’s own figures say that at least half a million children are waking up in homes where there isn’t any food,’ McConnell adds. This means that, until lunchtime, these children are at school without the energy and nutrition they need to learn effectively. ‘That isn’t a good thing for the child, the school or the country.’
McConnell used to run a consultancy in the City of London, but it was while carrying out research for a book that the true extent of food insecurity among British children hit home. She set up Magic Breakfast in 2003 with the goal of providing fuel for learning.
‘In terms of thinking about the world that we want to build, you want people who are going into jobs with the right skills; you want people to have the chance for a good education,’ she says. ‘It seemed to me that a good breakfast would be a small part of the jigsaw that would really make quite a big difference.’
FUEL FOR LEARNING
Magic Breakfast now feeds more than 31,000 children every weekday morning, and partners with nearly 500 schools and pupil-referral units to provide a healthy breakfast that includes porridge, bagels, low-sugar cereals and fruit juice. It’s a meal that meets the school food standards set out by the Department for Education.
In order to qualify to partner with the charity, schools must have a student population in which 35 per cent or more are eligible for free school meals, or in which 50 per cent or more have qualified for free school meals at some point in the last six years. The schools must also contribute some food, such as spreads for bagels and milk to accompany the cereals.
Critical to the work of the charity is that the meals are offered in such a way that the children in need don’t face any sort of stigma. ‘I wouldn’t go and get a bagel if I had to show I was poor to get it,’ McConnell says by way of example. As a result, the breakfasts are available to all students and often run alongside homework clubs. ‘For children who might be coming from very difficult or abusive homes, it’s a welcoming place that means they can have some time to do what they need to do and they’re settled in time for the start of the school day.’
‘Children now start the day having had a healthy breakfast and time to socialise and chill, meaning they are emotionally and physically equipped for the day ahead,’ says Fiona Pickering, headteacher of Windsor Community Primary School in Toxteth, Liverpool. ‘Our free breakfast club is absolutely vital for our school.’
As successful as the charity has been, there is more work to do, with some 300 schools on the waiting list. It’s one of the reasons that Magic Breakfast has been selected by the Masonic Charitable Foundation (MCF) to receive a £28,000 grant that will be used to provide meals to 400 children at six schools in the Liverpool and Merseyside area.‘
In the same way that we support children and grandchildren of Freemasons when their families are facing hardship, we also work to support disadvantaged children and young people more generally,’ says MCF chief operating officer Les Hutchinson. ‘One thing we became aware of was that getting access to enough healthy food is fundamental to a child’s chances of having a good quality of life and going on to be successful as an adult.’
Two particular pieces of evidence contributed to the MCF’s decision to support Magic Breakfast. The first was a 2017 Unicef report that found that children who are exposed to food insecurity ‘are more likely to face adverse health outcomes and developmental risk’, and that food hardship is also linked with ‘impaired academic performance, and is positively associated with experiencing shame at being out of food, and behavioural problems.’
The second was evidence showing how effective Magic Breakfasts could be. A 2016 study evaluated by researchers at the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) and the National Children’s Bureau found that, over the course of an academic year, year-two children in schools with a breakfast club made two additional months’ progress in reading, writing and maths when compared with a similar group at schools that didn’t receive support from the charity.
Furthermore, a 2015 study published in the Journal of Public Health Nutrition found that 84 per cent of schools reported improved educational attainment among pupils who attended breakfast club. Some 96 per cent reported increased energy levels/alertness and 95 per cent reported improved concentration levels.
McConnell’s corporate background has taught her that statistical evidence is useful in convincing would-be donors that their contributions will make a difference. However, she points out that the wider problem has not yet been solved. If anything, it may be worsening.
AN EYE ON THE FUTURE
About 30 per cent of British children are living in income poverty, according to household data published by the government, and IFS projections suggest this is set to rise to 37 per cent by 2022. The difficulties facing many children all over the country have been highlighted by recent BBC reports in which one teacher spoke about how she saw children ‘filling their pockets with food’ because they didn’t get enough at home. Another noticed the unhealthy ‘grey skin’ and ‘pallor’ of some children relative to their peers from wealthier families.
‘It’s something that I feel strongly about,’ McConnell says. ‘You get people from schools saying: “We had this little boy coming in. He was getting excluded and was always in trouble. We thought he was just naughty, but it turns out that his mum has to get up early and go to work. He’s got a younger brother who he has to get ready for school and there’s no food in the house.” No wonder he arrives cheesed off.’
There are problem areas all over the country, but the situation can be particularly severe in former industrial areas where the economy is weaker. Liverpool, which is the target of the MCF grant, was ranked the fourth most deprived local authority area in the 2015 Index of Multiple Deprivation. ‘We can’t let these kids be the ones who bear the brunt of these economic problems,’ says McConnell.
To that end, Magic Breakfast will count on the generosity of donors such as the masonic community and seek to build and maintain relationships with any businesses and brands that can lend a helping hand. The case that McConnell will continue making to prospective partners is that it’s not just about the children the charity helps – communities and, indeed, the nation can benefit. ‘We face a stark choice,’ she says. ‘We either get behind this generation of young people, or we will end up squandering a huge amount of human talent.’