It’s a shocking fact that some half a million children in the UK turn up to school too hungry to learn. When author and campaigner Carmel McConnell came face to face with this in her own London neighbourhood, she knew she had to do something about it. Here, she tells David Annand how, by the end of the year, she will have gone from feeding five schools to over a thousand
Carmel McConnell is one of those people incapable of living a quiet life; she has always been in the thick of the action, duking it out where it matters most. In the 1980s that meant trying to sue Ronald Reagan under the Geneva Convention and being part of the anti-nuclear protest camp at Greenham Common where she invaded the American army base and ended up in Holloway prison. In the 1990s, it meant immersing herself in the digital revolution and exploiting the new opportunities to create a business ethos that prioritised people not profit.
Then, in 2001, a chance encounter changed everything. She was a corporate consultant at the time, advising big companies on how to foster human values and at the same time researching her first book, Change Activist.
“I brought together a group of five head teachers in Hackney and asked them: ‘Have we created a fairer as well as a richer society?’ And they said to me: ‘All of us are having to bring in food every single day. The teachers at the school are bringing in food personally, from their own pocket, in order to be able to teach.’ And so my first reaction was what are the parents doing? Breakfast is not expensive. Why are we asking teachers to bring in food?”
The head teachers told her about the extent of the hunger in the families, about the parents in low-paid work with high outgoings, who were relying on food bank vouchers and were still finding that their money didn’t last the week. Unsurprisingly, she was horrified at the Dickensian levels of poverty.
“They were describing kids in the bins in Tesco. They were talking about queueing at Pret a Manger to buy their breakfast and having their Year Six kids behind them asking for a free sandwich, asking for anything that they've got leftover at 8.30 in the morning.”
McConnell’s response was to start buying cereal and bagels at the local supermarket and dropping them off at the five schools. After just two weeks the response was unequivocal. Across the board attendance had gone up. Punctuality improved.
“And they saw a marked reduction in the number of fights in the first playground break because the kids were not angry and upset because they've arrived from homes without food, gone to school and had to get through the first hour with nothing inside them.
“Within a week I had 25 schools ringing me saying please help. We hear you're dropping off to those five schools. So I ended up dropping off breakfasts to 25 schools.”
But it was obvious that this was just scratching the surface. “The Child Poverty Action Group says that for at least a quarter of all children, the only hot food they get is at school. These schools are an absolute oasis for the kids. It’s a hidden issue. At least half a million, maybe three million children, arrive at school too hungry to learn in this country. And we've got to sort that out because for those individual children it is a tragedy and for us as a country it's a massive missed opportunity to build a pipeline of success in the workforce.”
Soon, she was dropping off food at 50 schools. Change Activist got published and became a bestseller. So she set up a proper charity, Magic Breakfast, and funnelled all the profits from her book sales into it. She approached Bagel Nash which agreed to sell her bagels at cost and Quaker Tropicana which donated juice and porridge oats. And under her indefatigable leadership, and that of the charity’s CEO Alex Cunningham, it has grown at an incredible rate.
“By the end of 2019 we'll be giving breakfast to 250,000 children every morning in over a thousand schools.”
Despite the charity’s extraordinary growth, McConnell is desperate that the problem be sorted for good, especially given it is such an easy low-cost intervention that is proven to make a profound difference to children’s life chances. Obviously, this will require funding and for all that she is adept at twisting the arm of governments, councils and corporate sponsors, donations from individuals remain vital to the cause.
“There are at least half a million children going to school too hungry to learn. We can reach a child with a healthy breakfast for 30p and that 30p not only makes the child feel welcomed and valued, but it opens up four hours of learning time. And I just want that for every child.”
Wildsmith Skin donates £500 to the charitable causes featured in The Wildsmith Papers.