Rachael Anderson is head of delivery for schools at Magic Breakfast, a charity that provides a healthy breakfast for children in its partner schools. Magic Breakfast works with 480 primary, secondary and special schools, plus pupil referral units, all in areas of high disadvantage in England and Scotland. The charity also delivers the National School Breakfast Programme in over 1,800 schools in England, in partnership with Family Action, funded by the Department for Education.
“A desperate rise in the number of children at risk of hunger, coinciding with the closure of schools – our only route to reaching these children. The mission was clear – we had to find a way to get the food to the children who could no longer have breakfast at school, and quickly.”
From biological anthropology to breakfast
I went to a non-selective state secondary girls’ school and I was the only girl in my year to go to the University of Cambridge, where I studied biological anthropology.
As a northern state schoolgirl, whose parents didn’t go to university at all, I definitely struggled initially at Cambridge, being surrounded by both the extraordinarily bright, and also the excessively confident (courtesy of public school). I nearly left after a year, to go somewhere I felt I’d fit better, but I’m glad that I stayed to graduate, as I learned a great deal and not just about ‘monkey studies’, as my children now call it.
I initially went into medical publishing and found myself travelling the world as a commissioning editor by my mid-20s. After moving companies and publishing genres, I ended up landing a dream job – to start a new list of popular psychology and intelligent self-help books for publishing giant Pearson. On my first day, I met and commissioned a book from the inspirational whirlwind who is Carmel McConnell, founder of Magic Breakfast.
After a very successful and happy ten years with Pearson, and three children later, I left looking for a new direction, a new purpose. Whilst I figured out what I wanted to do, Carmel suggested I could temporarily do a bit of work for her charity, which was trying to expand in the north of England.
Everything snowballed from that point – the opportunities for growth and contribution mean I have been stretched and challenged more in the last six years than at any other period in my career and there’s still so much we can do to change young lives – so I’m still here!
Expansion over the past three years
In 2017, Magic Breakfast had recently doubled in size from supporting around 200 schools to over 400, following a highly successful government-funded pilot to start breakfast provision in around 180 schools in very disadvantaged areas.
Magic Breakfast had committed to continuing to support these schools after their one year of funding ended, to ensure their breakfast offer would continue to grow and reach more children at risk of hunger with the right fuel for learning at the start of the day.
Shortly after Womanthology spoke with Carmel back in September 2017, and on the back of this successful Magic Breakfast pilot, the government announced fixed-term funding to start or expand breakfast in a huge 1,775 disadvantaged schools across England. This was an enormous opportunity to roll out the proven Magic Breakfast model at scale, and transform the learning potential of hundreds of thousands of children at risk of hunger.
Magic Breakfast formed a partnership with fellow charity Family Action to win the bid and deliver our tried and tested model under the banner of the ‘National School Breakfast Programme’, which has been an amazing success. We felt confident we had optimised the breakfast offering in the vast majority of the schools we supported.
And then the pandemic hit…
Overnight we faced our biggest ever challenge. A desperate rise in the number of children at risk of hunger, coinciding with the closure of schools – our only route to reaching these children. The mission was clear: We had to find a way to get the food to the children who could no longer have breakfast at school, and quickly.
After some very urgent conversations with our wonderful food partners (and finding some new ones!) we went back to schools with our solution – out went the big catering boxes of frozen bagels for large scale school breakfast and in came out all-new, handy fortnightly Magic Breakfast packs, ideal for families to collect from school premises, or for staff or volunteers to deliver to families at home.
The response was overwhelming. School staff, who had been so worried about families pushed into desperate circumstances and without food, were so relieved (to the point of tears in some cases) to be able to offer ‘take-home’ food to children – not only covering term time, but during the school summer holiday also.
But not all families were able to collect food, and not all schools had the capacity to deliver at scale. To solve this problem, Magic Breakfast sought the help of Amazon, who helped us go one better and offer the 480 Magic Breakfast schools the option to sign up families for doorstep Amazon breakfast parcel deliveries!
Schools jumped at this pandemic alternative offer, as it removed all the barriers to children being able to access the food, and tens of thousands of Magic Breakfast parcels went direct to families in the summer term and across the whole of the holidays.
Introducing the National School Breakfast Programme
Around 1,800 schools have been through the full Magic Breakfast ‘school journey’ under the National School Breakfast Programme, during which time they have had personalised support and guidance to start, optimise and embed a breakfast provision that works for them.
It’s been uplifting to see so many schools throw everything into making breakfast work – and my goodness, it’s made a difference to the children and the schools.
Overwhelmingly, schools have reported improved punctuality, attendance, concentration, children settled and more ready to learn and so much more. As a result, there is a real desire among headteachers to continue these large-scale school breakfast provisions; the only concern is the school’s ability to fund it themselves.
It’s vitally important that these schools are able to safeguard the hunger-focused breakfast provision after their funded period of support, which ends in December 2020.
Under the National School Breakfast Programme banner, we’re also currently able to offer a ‘COVID-19 response’ breakfast support offer to an additional 540 schools, enabling them to offer food in school or distribute take-home packs until March 2021.
No child too hungry to learn
My role is focused on achieving the end result of ‘no child too hungry to learn’. This Magic Breakfast goal is reliant on us working closely with schools to ensure that they are supported and, sometimes, challenged to make sure every child can access breakfast without barrier or stigma.
This is more difficult than it sounds in theory! Opening a breakfast club and hoping the right children come is simply not enough.
My team works tirelessly to develop strategies and work as partners with schools to ensure whatever the finances, building, layout, staffing and unique community challenges of each school, children at risk of hunger are identified and actively encouraged to take up the breakfast offer.
As a result, my job is very school facing, and I work with my brilliant team to anticipate the challenges schools may face: we aim to work harder and smarter to make life easier for the schools.
Our big breakthroughs have definitely come through developing alternatives to the traditional ‘breakfast club’. Breakfast models such as soft start classroom breakfast or ‘healthy grab and go’ are much more accessible to children, even those who squeeze through the doors a few seconds before the bell.
The children who most benefit from school breakfast are rarely those who appear immaculately dressed with homework done, a full hour before school starts – life often isn’t simple for children at risk of hunger, so putting yourself in the shoes of the child, as well as the school, is an important part of what we do.
Of course, I also work very closely with my colleagues in logistics and fundraising in particular – we can only help schools solve child hunger if we have the funding and a smooth supply chain!
Child hunger is very worrying. The number of children living in food-insecure homes in the UK was rising pre-COVID – around one child in five, according to UNICEF – and schools are telling us that the pandemic has pushed so many more families into difficulties.
According to the Food Foundation, two million children had been affected by food insecurity in the first five weeks of lockdown. Schools have been recently reporting that the numbers of families applying for Free School Meals (FSM) is rising, it will show soon.
However, this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to children that Magic Breakfast needs to be there for – we don’t just provide free breakfast for FSM children because schools tell us that the children they are most worried about are often just above the benefits threshold. There are many reasons children arrive at school hungry, and we’re there for them regardless.
Magic Breakfast wants to solve the problem of morning child hunger for good – and that means school breakfast legislation. Legislation would guarantee schools long-term funding to provide breakfast to all children who need it.
To achieve this, it’s important to have a strong and solid understanding in parliament, and across the political spectrum, of the cost of hunger and the many beneficial outcomes of solving the issue. We have the support of a growing number of wonderful MPs, and building that base is a crucial part of solving child hunger for the long term.
How Womanthology readers can help
Quite simply, the more money we can raise, the more schools we can offer support to and the more hungry children we can feed. For just 34 pence, Magic Breakfast can provide a vulnerable child with a nutritious breakfast to set them up for the morning of learning ahead.
Spreading the word to friends and contacts about the scale of child hunger and the work of Magic Breakfast would be brilliant too. For readers interested in politics, a School Breakfast Bill is due to be presented to parliament by Emma Lewell-Buck, MP, on 14th October 2020, so they could draw their MP’s attention to this Bill with a view to gathering more support for school breakfast legislation among parliamentarians.
Next steps at Magic Breakfast
This is a big year for Magic Breakfast. We need to be there for schools, helping them to adapt their breakfast offer, as they navigate the difficult next year in a pandemic (and, hopefully, post-pandemic) world.
It’s vital that we stay flexible, to help schools reach children with breakfast whatever is going on for the child and whatever restrictions and challenges the school may face. Hungry children can’t learn, and with sufficient funding, it is within our power to avoid further widening of the disadvantage gap for hundreds of thousands of children.
We also want to grow the number of schools we support as a charity – helping as many schools as we can in understanding and addressing the hunger issue.
Hunger is often partly hidden – sometimes schools have to experience what happens when no child is hungry to understand the scale of the problem they had. So often, schools tell us about magical behavioural changes in individual children after school breakfast is introduced. They simply didn’t know these children were hungry.
Once a school has an optimal provision, we want to offer subsidised food and support to safeguard the breakfast for their children for the medium-term – the ability to afford the breakfast is the biggest threat to schools deciding not to continue.
Whilst we’re doing that, of course, we will keep on making the case for strong effective school breakfast legislation for the long term.
When I joined Magic Breakfast in 2014, one of my major goals was to try and succeed my way to redundancy! It will be a glorious day when no child in this country has to face a morning at school with tummy pains due to hunger, but in the meantime, we need all the help we can get to ensure that right here, right now, we get fuel for learning to as many children as possible. Thank you for your help!