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.’


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.


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.’

Life-changing lessons

Crossing five thousand miles and overcoming huge communication barriers, two Freemasons set up an inspirational school in Zambia. Ellie Fazan reports on their astonishing story

When teachers Tony Foster and Adam Williams took children from their North Wales school on a trip to Zambia eleven years ago, they visited a rural settlement called Mkushi. What they found was shocking. Out of around three thousand homesteads, there were one thousand orphans. ‘It was the height of the AIDS epidemic, although people there had no idea what it was,’ recalls Tony. ‘They called it “slim”, because you got thin, then died.’

Zambia has suffered a devastating AIDS epidemic. According to, one in six adults is living with HIV, six hundred and thirty thousand children are AIDS orphans, and in 2003 alone (around the time that Tony and Adam visited), eighty-nine thousand people died from the disease. Although the situation has improved in the past decade, it has had an impact across society, resulting in Zambia being one of the poorest countries in the world, with low levels of education and employment.

UNICEF estimates that more than a quarter of a million children are out of school, and forty-seven per cent of those who are in school do not complete their primary education. Since 2002 the state has provided free basic schooling, but in reality the government has had little money to put towards education, and the cost of uniforms, books and meals is prohibitively expensive for poor families.

There are further barriers to education in rural parts of the country: children may have to travel very long distances to school and, as the family is considered an economic unit, parents and guardians need their children to work. ‘I found it very hard seeing this because I know the value of education,’ says Tony. ‘It gives the opportunity for a better life and not having that sets you back. This is especially true in countries where they don’t have a lot.’

Building foundations

More than five thousand miles from home, Tony and Adam found hope on the outskirts of Mkushi. A local man called Albert Mwansa was teaching a handful of children in a building without a roof. ‘He explained that otherwise they just wouldn’t get an education. It was humbling to see him trying to help,’ Tony explains. ‘Straight away we wanted to get involved, although at first it seemed quite daunting.’

When Tony and Adam returned home they began exchanging letters with Mwansa. ‘It seems so old fashioned, but it was before the internet was prevalent. It was obvious that this was a man we could trust. Mwansa already had the desire to do something, so we’d be building on that. He would have ownership, while we could provide the means.’

The teachers laid out a few founding principles: education would be free, the school would be open to boys and girls of all ages, the education would be at least as good as the state programme, and money would be set aside to train teachers. The school was to be called The Itala Foundation, with a board of trustees working together in Wales and Zambia.

Along with Adam, Tony is a member of St Cyngar Lodge, No. 5323, which meets in Porthmadog, North Wales. He explains how their work in Zambia highlights the ethos of the Craft: ‘Masonry means that there is a universal brotherhood committed to helping our fellow human beings around the world. Our work with disadvantaged children and families at Itala is just an extension of that masonic care for those who are less fortunate than ourselves.’

So the two Freemasons raised ‘a few hundred quid and asked local schools to donate chalk that they didn’t use any more’. They built a mud hut school using local labour and bought pencils and paper so that lessons could begin. In the first year, seventy-five AIDS orphans were offered places at the school, but since then it has grown into three large purpose-built buildings (including a science block) with ten qualified teachers – six of whom are currently receiving funding to undergo further training – and the means to teach one thousand children. The school provides at least one free meal a week to attract pupils, does not charge for books or materials, and there is no requirement to wear a uniform, because ‘we don’t want anything to deter them’.

Top of the class

With a one hundred per cent pass rate at grade seven, The Itala Foundation has been such a success that children from other schools in the area are trying to enrol. ‘It’s hard to know what to do,’ says Tony. ‘We always said that we didn’t want to exclude anyone but our aim is to give a basic education to poor children.’

Delighted by how hard the children work, Tony is keen to mention two girls who attained the highest grades in the whole district in their maths exams. ‘No one grumbles about going to school – many refer themselves. Their prize possessions are a carrier bag, a pencil and a book. Most get up very early to do their homework and then their chores before school, and then go to work afterwards.’

Tony is proud of the children’s achievements, but he is most happy when he hears that they have a job. ‘We have a boy working as a carpenter, and another at a craft college in the city. Our aim isn’t to get children into university, it’s to provide them with the basics that will set them up for life.’


Wednesday, 13 June 2012 01:00

Peking to Paris

Herefordshire Freemason Kip Waisell and his wife Carmen are intrepid travellers for charity

They began in 2005 when they drove two new 125cc scooters back from Almaty in Kazakhstan, raising £5,000 for Macmillan Cancer Care. Two years later they travelled from Peking to Paris in a 750cc 1930 Austin Seven Chummy. They completed the journey of some 7,800 miles in 46 days and raised £10,000 for UNICEF, which was used to buy mosquito nets for Kenyan children.

The couple raised a further £500 for the Hereford Historic Churches Trust and £900 for St Michael’s Hospice, Hereford, with talks about their travels. For the hat-trick, Kip and his wife Carmen decided to repeat the Peking to Paris challenge, but taking a slightly different route, Carmen driving a 1930 Austin Seven while Kip travelled in a 1928 Austin Seven Ulster.

This time money was raised for Smile Train, the cleft lip and palate charity, visiting their clinics en route. Smile Train has benefited by over £9,000 to date, with £150 transforming a child’s life in an operation that takes just 45 minutes.

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