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.’

DRAMATIC IMPROVEMENT

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.’

Up to the plate

As the staff at the Parthenon restaurant busy themselves preparing Greek delicacies, they communicate in sign language. Matt Timms discovers how masonic funding is giving deaf people new opportunities and changing perceptions

Last year there was not a single Greek restaurant in Blackburn. So when the Parthenon flung its doors open in May, locals rejoiced that finally there was a place to enjoy some Mediterranean cuisine. Never one to do things by halves, Doug Alker, the man behind the place, brought over a chef from Greece, Greek waiters, and even a traditional Greek musical duo, complete with bouzouki (a traditional string instrument) and liberal use of the expression ‘Opa!’

Chef Petros Tsilgkiriau claims his moussaka is ‘perfect’, while the staff hardly let a night slide without a spot of traditional dance. It’s authentic Greek and shares much in common with any restaurant you would find in the motherland. However, it also has one major difference – most of the people working here are deaf.

Rather than bark orders at one another, the kitchen staff use British Sign Language, or BSL, to communicate in order to cook and prepare meals. All except Tsilgkiriau are deaf, and three of the workers have just started 18-month apprenticeships organised by the East Lancashire Deaf Society (ELDS) and funded by the Masonic Charitable Foundation (MCF).

Statistics show that deaf people are 50% less likely to find employment, education or training than those who are not hard of hearing, due mainly to difficulties around communicating verbally. Approximately 71% of the deaf community fail to achieve the government’s target of five GCSEs, exacerbating the issue further.

The £75,000 grant from the MCF will fully fund the Parthenon restaurant apprenticeship scheme three evenings a week for three years. It not only benefits the apprentices but improves perceptions of deaf people in Blackburn and beyond. With local businesses able to engage with the scheme, the hope is that it will open up employment opportunities for apprentices later in life.

CHANGING LIVES

‘We’ve created a working model here for how the deaf should be treated,’ says Alker, executive chair and managing director of the ELDS. ‘It’s a small-scale model, and all we need now is to expand. People should come in and see for themselves that this is how it can be done.’

The restaurant is a self-supporting, not-for-profit social enterprise established by the ELDS. It joins 11 other apprenticeships, including nurseries and a home-solutions programme, as part of the charity’s efforts to integrate deaf people into the community. ‘Perceptions have changed of what it means to be deaf,’ says Alker, who has headed up the ELDS for more than 20 years. 

Vasileios Orfanos, who goes by the name Lakis, has been working in the kitchen as an apprentice for three months. ‘To the hearing people who think deaf people can’t, it’s a nice message to say, “Yes, we can,”’ he says of the restaurant.

As a fan of Greek food and cooking, Orfanos says the apprenticeship has not only helped improve his skills in the kitchen, but his confidence, too. ‘Now that people see me here at work, I think attitudes have changed. Working here, I’ve seen a shift. People see that a deaf person can work and do anything that they want to do.’

Tanvir Shah, an ex-apprentice and now kitchen manager, has experienced many of the challenges that young deaf people face in work and education. Despite attending college and obtaining a qualification in mechanics, Shah has struggled to find a job. His hearing issues were deemed too great a risk by potential employers, and requests for interpreters proved too problematic – and expensive – to carry through.

‘That really hit my confidence,’ says Shah, who credits the ELDS apprenticeship for kick-starting his career. ‘I had the future to think about. I have to work for myself and provide for my daughter.’ After two years in the kitchen, he was asked if he wanted to work at the Parthenon permanently. Now he teaches apprentices, who can not only communicate with him on the same level, but also learn from his experiences. For Shah, the evolution from apprentice to mentor has paid huge dividends. ‘My confidence has skyrocketed,’ he says. ‘I’m not in this little box any more, nor do I feel so shy. I’m in a good place and just enjoying life.’

BREAKING DOWN BARRIERS

Another apprentice, Cassie Chrysah, lives across the road from the restaurant, and arrived from Greece with aspirations to work as a waitress. She has seen first-hand how the ELDS can open doors. Chrysah previously expressed an interest in joinery back home, and the ELDS has now given her the chance to study it at college. ‘Of course, deaf people still encounter barriers. But situations like this mean people’s resistance dissolves,’ says Alker. ‘With Cassie, with the restaurant, with the dancing, our aim is to change perceptions.’

As executive manager and self-styled ‘mum to the group’, Clare Stocks says the Parthenon staff are more than just workmates. After the last customer has left, the staff get together for a sit-down meal. ‘I consider these people my family. It’s not like I really want to go home,’ says Orfanos. ‘In a world where people see me as disabled, here I’m treated as an equal.’

Issues such as social exclusion and isolation affect all areas of society, yet the media tends to focus on the elderly. ‘We sometimes forget that these same issues can affect people of any age, particularly those with disabilities,’ says Les Hutchinson, Chief Operating Officer of the MCF. ‘As a society, we are incredibly lucky that charities like the ELDS exist. They have proven that it is possible to combat educational and employment barriers for young deaf people.’

Full participation

The East Lancashire Deaf Society is a not-for-profit charity based in Blackburn that provides support to deaf groups across Lancashire. It aims to understand the diverse range of communication needs of deaf British Sign Language users, deaf-blind people, hard-of-hearing people and those who have lost theirhearing later in life. The society aims for individuals to get the same opportunities in education, employment, access and involvement as everyone else in the community. It achieves this through three key routes:

  • Advocacy
  • Information
  • Services

Find out more - click here.

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