Carmel McConnell MBE is founder and chief executive of the charity Magic Breakfast. Her background is a mixture of social activism and senior corporate roles, having worked at executive levels in BT, UBS and 20th Century Fox and having been an adviser to many FTSE 100 clients on change leadership, growth and strategic alliances. Carmel was researching for a book in 2000 and was shocked to learn that many primary school pupils were arriving at school too hungry to learn, so she started buying and delivering breakfast to five schools, re-mortgaging her house as demand for her help continued to grow, before founding Magic Breakfast as a charity in 2003.
“…We’ll work any way we can to make sure we’re able to say that there’s no child going to be fainting at school, there’s no child going to be angry because they haven’t had anything to eat since the day before…”
Setting up Magic Breakfast to ensure no child starts lessons hungry
I spent quite a lot of time working on various campaigns in my twenties, including anti-racism, and then I joined corporate life. I trained as a technologist and I worked in BT for quite a few years. I did an MBA in Business and Technology.
Fast-forward to running my own company, which was about trying to help big businesses and big organisations to say, “Look, we have a role in making a better world.” Not only in making great products and services but actually about saying: “We care about social equality. We care about the planet. We care about the well-being of our staff as well as our customers.” So, I was running a firm that was working on that and it was doing very well, so I got the chance to write a book called Change Activist.
It was about how can we learn from people who have changed the world in our business communities. How can we learn by what was done by Mandela or Rosa Parks, or at that time it was Anita Roddick?
I was trying to research whether we, as the business community, had created a fairer society, as well as a richer society. I went off to talk to all different sorts of people. I talked to some nurses and then some headteachers from schools in Hackney who all said to me: “Carmel, we are having to bring in food every single day of the week in order to be able to teach because the children are coming in hungry.”
Where I was having the conversation was 20 minutes down the road from Liverpool Street and the City was doing pretty well. I said, “Are you sure? You’re saying that children are too hungry to learn in Hackney?” And they were saying, “Yes, the kids are coming in hungry.” So, I said, “Well, what are the parents doing? Why is this happening?” And the teachers said, “The parents are hungry too. We’re having to deal with the fact that many of these children are in homes where they’re not earning as much money as they need to in order to feed themselves and their family and pay the rent.” I was REALLY shocked.
What a difference a (good start to the) day makes
It was at that moment I realised that what I was hearing was so seriously adrift from what I thought was happening in the world that it was a huge upset. I asked if there was anything I could do to help so they said: “We’ve got these kids who are really struggling so maybe if you could bring in some cereal that would be great.” So, I went to Tesco in Morning Lane for about a year. When I was doing the family shop I’d drop off food for those five schools where I’d met the headteachers. I went in to see the schools and I’d take bagels and cereal – whatever I could get my hands on, dropping it off with a caretaker on Saturday morning.
The teachers would say that they’d had kids who were foraging on the way to school. They were absent because they were trying to find food. “There were kids who were very badly behaved but now that you’re dropping off a bit of food we’re seeing that it was just down to hunger. Their behaviour has now changed and we’ve got so many more kids doing better in the classroom.”
I’d written this book about values in the business community and I was like, “Bl**dy hell! Can something as simple as a nutritious breakfast make such a big difference to the school?” And the teachers were saying, “Yes! Attendance has improved, punctuality has improved, there are fewer fights in the playground, and the kids are really feeling better in themselves. Their diet is so poor from a combination of not having any money in the family home and very often not having any food skills or knowledge of nutrition, it’s making a huge difference.”
I found myself with about 25 schools asking me if I could help, as I’d done with these five schools up the road. So, I decided that I’d just take a couple of years out from my work and try to get the local authorities to do it. I was thinking, “What do I know about the education system?” So, I went off and spoke to lots of local authorities who all told me it wasn’t really a problem because they’d already funded this or funded that, so I said to them, “Look, these kids are hungry. They’re in school and the most important lessons are taught in the morning, and they are almost passing out with hunger and they don’t get anything until lunchtime. What’s going on?” I failed miserably to get any local authorities to agree that they needed to do something, so I set up the charity.
Change Activist came out and became a business best seller. The publisher put some money into the charity from the book. I put my profits in from it. I just decided that we were going to have to start to deliver food. And that’s where it all began.
My role on a day a day basis
My role today is chief executive. We’ve got a very simple strategy. We want to make sure that no child starts the day too hungry to learn. In the fifth richest economy in the world that doesn’t seem too ridiculous a request from life, does it?
There are between half a million and three million children going to school too hungry to learn. The data is very difficult to get hold of. The Government’s most cautious data says half a million, so we say at least half a million, but the holiday hunger programmes that have been coming out for children who are not getting access to school food during the holidays are saying: “Actually, there are three million children hungry in the school holidays.” So, it’s probably three million children out of 17 million children who are going to school hungry.
To tackle the problem, we need to figure out three things:
Firstly, we need to persuade the food industry to give food. Schools apply to us. There are some who have over 35% of children on free school meals so there’s a big need. We work with them to ensure that every child who wants a breakfast can have one without any barrier, without any stigma.
It’s got to be really positive. They’ve got to feel like they’re being supported in their learning and that a good breakfast is key to their success. If they’ve got good nutrition at the start of the school day they’re going to be able to get their brains working, their bodies working – they’re going to do better in school.
Last year, we delivered six million breakfasts to schools. We feed 31,000 children every morning in term time in 470 schools all over the country (and we’ve just started working in Scotland as well). Getting the food together and getting it delivered means there a lot of logistics for us to get our heads around.
We’ve got food and drink coming in from Quaker Oats and Tropicana. We’ve got some cereal coming in from Tesco and we’ve got some amazing Bagels, rich in protein and fibre, which come in from a company called Bagel Nash in Leeds.
For their part, the schools put in staff to run the breakfast programmes. It could be a traditional school breakfast club or it could be food in the classroom, or it could be food in the playground. We’ll work any way we can to make sure we’re able to say that there’s no child going to be fainting at school, there’s no child going to be angry because they haven’t had anything to eat since the day before.
Making the case for change
The second part of what we do is making the case for change. We did some work with the Education Endowment Foundation, the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Department for Education on how the breakfast programme that we give to schools works and whether it makes a difference.
The biggest randomised controlled trial and independent research of its kind came back, over the course of a year, and said: “The children who are getting Magic Breakfast support are two months ahead of their peers who are not getting that support.” Two months ahead in one academic year in core subjects is a big deal.
I’m trying very hard to say across all the schools who are struggling with hunger right now, we need to get a national schools’ breakfast programme. If there’s one thing Womanthology readers can help me do, it’s to say with a massive voice to Government and the media, we have to have a national schools’ breakfast programme in the way that we’ve got a national schools’ lunch programme, because the most important lessons are taught in the morning.
We can deliver each breakfast for 22 pence. It’s healthy, and these kids are two months further on in their studies than their peers who are not getting it, so it’s worth it. It’s a good investment. It’s getting people to understand that it’s not just a nice thing to have a bowl of cereal. It’s about driving a child towards their life chances. It’s about supporting that child to achieve their potential.
Just because you happen to wake up in a home that’s got no food, that shouldn’t be a marker to knock you out of things you could do in your life. It’s not fair.
Just £42 a year gives a child a healthy breakfast every school day
The third thing we’re doing is fundraising. We’re still a small charity so we need to get our hands on the money to pay for things – pay for our team, pay for the expert support in schools. We give every school we support a £300 grant to buy things like cups and bowls, and then we just deliver as much food as they need to reach every child. There’s no upper limit – it’s as much as they need to reach every child without stigma or barriers.
So, doing those three things is my main job during the day. I’ve just got back from chatting with Tesco in Welwyn Garden City. Jo Malone is one of our patrons. I met with her yesterday and we were talking about how to get the message out there about fundraising to help us ensure that no child goes to school too hungry to learn.
We need more funders, we need more allies. We need more people to say: “Come on – we can’t have children missing out on their learning just because their families run out of food for whatever reason.” We just have to make sure there’s a school breakfast available.
Everything about Magic Breakfast is very loving and very optimistic but it is horrible reading the stories of how many schools across the country there are where there are more than half of teachers bringing in food in order to teach. These children are not to blame for austerity. They are having to deal with it. It’s about trying to develop an answer. £42 a year will give a child a healthy breakfast every school day. It’s do-able.
We’ve never had so many schools on our waiting list – ever. We’ve got over 300 schools on the list currently. We’ve got 470 schools we support at the moment through our own fundraising. Between now and Christmas we’re aiming to take on another 30 schools from the waiting list and then do a big fundraising drive to try and take another 50 off in the next term. We’ve got to grow in a sustainable way. We’ve got to manage the accounts and keep the show on the road. We can’t grow too quickly because we can’t be guaranteed the funds.
The money comes from lots of individual donations and some businesses, and then we’ve got some random things such as the Hackney Village Fayre and all sorts of wonderful fundraising that goes on. Amazon have pledged to fund an amazing one million magic breakfasts in the school year 2016/17. This will benefit over 5,000 children in 77 schools located close to Amazon’s offices and buildings across the country, including in London, Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Newcastle and Edinburgh.
For us, support we get from players of People’s Postcode Lottery is also transformational. At the moment, we don’t have one penny of Government funding for the Magic Breakfast programme in schools. People tend to think: “A programme that big must be Government funded.” But it’s not. It’s us out chatting people up every day to say: “Would you like to make sure children are not too hungry to learn?”
Child poverty – a growing problem
The Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Child Poverty Action Group are saying that the numbers of children living in income poverty is going to rise from three million right now to up to five million by 2020. They predict that because of benefit changes and zero hours contracts, and because prices are rising due to the impact of Brexit on the economy it’s going to be harder for lots of families to be able to provide what they need.
We think the majority of children in our schools are in homes where families are working, but earning very little. It’s a bit tough when you’re working all the hours you can and you still run out of money for food. Lots of families will say to us: “Veg has gone up 10% in the past year, electricity has gone up 13% and wages have gone down 5%, so all we can do is economise on the food bill. We just get less. We go to cheap supermarkets. We go to food banks.”
For the families that are trying to deal with that struggle every week, having the knowledge that their child is enjoying going to a fun breakfast club with their friends and they’re getting nutritious food is a relief. The schools are telling us that this is an absolutely essential safety valve and a lifeline for vulnerable families. Headteachers in schools we work with have told us that again and again and again. It still blows my mind that it’s so bad and so desperate out there, and it’s getting worse.
There are parts of the country where the economy is improving – the South East is seeing a little bit of improvement in terms of slightly higher rates of employment, but you’ve still got unequal societies.
- For £42 per year we can feed a child every day during term time – that’s 22 pence per school day, £3.50 per month.
- We’re working with 470 schools and we reach an average of 67 children in each school. Then there are the kids on our immediate radar that we want to help on top of the 31,000 currently receiving Magic Breakfast provision.
The mum effect
Magic Breakfast has grown through so many people’s generosity – particularly mums who have got the ability to feed their own kids. I was down in a school in Bristol recently before they broke up for the summer and a mum came in to the breakfast club and said: “Please could I possibly get a sandwich for my daughter? She’s ill and we haven’t got any food in the house. She’d normally come to the breakfast club and get a bowl of porridge but I haven’t got anything in. I don’t get paid for another couple of days. Is it OK if I take her a sandwich?”
To be a mum and to have to come in must have been awful. I ask what she would eat and she said “I’m going to work later – I’ll try to find something there.” I was standing next to the breakfast club counter. It was so awful that she was in the position of being forced to ask in that way. It’s just wrong. I’m so glad that we’ve been able to put this together for parents to know they do have a way of getting their kids fed with a good breakfast every day, regardless of their circumstances.
People don’t always realise what it’s like for families like this. As soon as you’ve got enough money to have a washing machine you’re not in the launderette, so you’re not seeing people in the launderette. As soon as you’ve got a car, you’re not on the bus. If you’ve got those little luxuries they keep you away from the main kind of places where people who don’t have very much money are going.
You can make a difference – here’s how
I know there are lots of people who feel that they want to make a difference and it’s quite hard to work out how, so one of the great things about a Magic Breakfast club is that people can see it for themselves. Every year the teachers write up the case studies that have gone on so it feels very straightforward – if I can give £3.50 a month you can tell me that a child has been fed. It feels much more transparent and easier to understand.
I want everyone who donates to be able to feel like it’s their charity. It’s simply the bringing together of all this love and care from loads of amazing people.
The Department for Education put out a tender two and a half years ago to set up 184 breakfast clubs as they thought it was a good idea. We went up against everyone else and won the tender, so we got the money for a year and a half of running 184 breakfast clubs, which of course we did, but then the funding ended for those breakfast clubs but we kept on with them. We said: “OK. You’re part of the Magic Breakfast family and we’re not going to leave you high and dry now the Government money has run out, so we’re going to fundraise to keep your kids fed anyway.”
We have to keep up the pressure to say that if we want a pipeline of successes in this country, investing in education and investing in kids being fed and their minds being looked after properly is a pretty good idea.
I would love your readers to go onto our website and learn more. Have a healthy breakfast and look after yourself. If there are children that you think might be vulnerable, check they’re getting enough to eat, and that they’re getting the right things to eat. If you’ve a got a niece or nephew who’s living on crisps, just get in there and see if you can get them on to something a little bit healthier.
Find out more about our breakfast clubs, and if you can, donate. Just £3.50 will give a child a healthy breakfast every school day for a month.
Coming up for me and Magic Breakfast
I love it when the kids come back to school. I know it sounds weird, but if you’re in one of our breakfast clubs before the school holidays you’re struck by the number of kids who are upset about the school holidays because they don’t have any food at home. So, we get them back and we start giving them good food, and we start hearing their stories.
There are 31,000 schoolchildren all over the country who rely on us. This week we’ll be back in full swing and I love that. At Magic Breakfast, we’ve been focusing on getting the food industry on board, getting the food itself, and the supply chains, making sure it’s all been independently assessed and that it really makes a difference, as well as building a team. So now the next stage is to make sure that even more people are aware of the problem, and more importantly, how they can help us to make it better. Each and every one of you reading this can help, so please do take a look at our website and give whatever you can afford. We look forward to working with you.