“This isn’t about people wanting free food. It’s a famine”

Categories: Features

Carmel McConnell, the founder and chief executive of Magic Breakfast, on poverty, the sugar tax and why food deprivation isn’t just a barrier to learning, but a barrier to a better society

Interview: Ellie Costigan
Portrait: Sophia Spring

Magic Breakfast provides breakfast to 31,000 school children who arrive at school hungry, every day. Having seen first-hand the extent of the problem, Carmel McConnell quit her successful career in the corporate world, remortgaged her house, and set up this inspirational charity in 2003.

You come from a corporate background—how did you find yourself in the charity sector?
I’m a broadband technologist, really. I’m a geek! In my twenties I did a lot of campaigning but then thought right, I need to earn some money, so I got a job in a big company. As my corporate career grew, I was asked to write a book about how business leaders need to be more like social activists, in order to build firms that invoke trust.

One of the questions I was looking to answer was, have we made society fairer, as well as richer? As part of my research, I went to talk to a group of headteachers in Hackney. Their response to that question was, well, we have to bring in food for the children every single day to be able to teach. Otherwise, by 10 o’clock they’re all putting their hands up saying they have tummy ache. They’re listless, angry or upset. And I said: “Blimey, what are the parents doing, surely they should be feeding them before school?” They looked at me and said: “The parents are hungry too.” It was a huge shock: two miles down the road from my office there are kids who aren’t able to learn because they’ve had no food for the last day. It really upset me.

So, what did you do?
I know nothing about education, I know nothing about nutrition, but I thought, can I donate? So, on Saturday mornings, I would go to the supermarket on Morning Lane in Hackney and drop off food to those five schools—bagels, orange juice, cereals, whatever I could. Half way through the year I went back and had a chat to the teachers to see if it was doing anything. Their response amazed me: “Oh my god, we had kids who were late every single day because they’d been asking for food in the caffs on the way in, or because they were feeding their brothers or sisters first and getting in late, and now they’re not. We’ve had an improvement in behaviour, there are fewer fights in the playground.” The children were coming into school and having two or three bagels and a big glass of milk—they were really hungry. But then the difference afterwards? Bloody hell.

How did Magic Breakfast come about?
After that experience, I went home and said to my other half, “These kids are hungry and a bit of breakfast really helps them, can we remortgage and I’ll take a couple of years to try and help?” I thought, all we need to do is bang on the doors of the local authorities and say, come on! This is crazy. And that was my lunacy, really. No one wanted to go there. Magic Breakfast has been built up through corporate deals—I went to Quaker Oats, Tropicana, Kellogg’s. We’ve got 467 school partners and we feed 31,000 children every morning during the school term—but there are still half a million children going to school hungry in this country.

Why are so many children going hungry?
It’s still quite hard for people to grasp, but this is all driven by poverty. For so many parents, they can’t negotiate their rent or utilities, so they cut back on their food bill. People often say to me, well they have Sky television, or this that and the other—I wish they could come to our schools and hear what the teachers are telling us. The parents are on zero-hour contracts, their rent has gone up but their wages are flat or going backwards.

Schools do home inspections when the children are in a bad way, and often they go into the fridge and there’s one packet of sausages, say, and that’s all they’ve got for the week other than whatever they can get from the food bank. They open every cupboard—I don’t know about you, but we always have at least a few meals around and some staples—and there’s nothing there, other than perhaps some tomato ketchup.

On top of that, we have a generation of parents who lack good cookery skills. We once ran a cookery project, in which we taught the children to make something very simple—the scrambled eggs in the microwave trick—and the kids were putting the eggs on the table and letting them run off and splat on the floor. They’d never touched an egg before. They just had no familiarity with raw food. It’s such a horrible thing to be happening.

Carmel McConnel

What impact does this have on the kids?
We took a gamble, stuck our necks right out and did a randomised controlled trial. Fifty schools were held back from our support for a year, which was really tough, and then they were independently assessed by the Education Endowment Foundation. They found that the Magic Breakfast model gave the child two months of educational advantage over their peers who didn’t have it. In any one year, that’s pretty vital! But the big thing that schools tell us again and again is, Magic Breakfast has improved behaviour, punctuality and attendance. Schools get measured on that. We’ve got lots of case studies of schools who were really struggling, and now they’ve got our support they’ve had a better Ofsted report—in some cases, they’ve gone from being in the lowest 30 per cent, to the highest.

What are the wider implications?
The country is spending around £10 billion a year on obesity-related illnesses. Based on current trends, it’s predicted that 4.9 million people will have diabetes by 2035, largely due to lifestyle. Around one in three children are obese by the end of primary school. We either deal with this in a structural way, or we pay the consequences. The Canadian government did a big study and they found that across a 30-year timespan, a malnourished child was costing the tax payer three times as much, due to illness. So even if you say, “I don’t care about the kids, I care about what we as society are spending”—which is a pretty horrible position—then there’s still a really strong argument. There’s a fair bit of noise that the poor are the problem; at the moment, 1.2 million people have to go to a food bank or else they wouldn’t eat. This isn’t about people wanting free food, it’s famine. And we’ve got an approach that gets right to the heart of it.

How does Magic Breakfast work?
Schools apply to us, we provide the food and a startup grant to buy bowls, toasters and so on, then it’s up to them to provide staff to run a breakfast club. The big problem is, schools often don’t have the budget to pay staff costs. We’ve been doing some work to find ways around that—bagels in the playground before school, or in booster classes, or a breakfast counter where they can sit down and have a bowl of cereal if they’re late. What we really want is for schools to use the pupil premium [funding received to support disadvantaged pupils] to pay for that breakfast support. We appreciate it’s not easy, schools are under a huge amount of pressure, but we’re always trying to find ways to help, and to get headteachers to realise just how important it is.

What needs to be done to address these issues on a wider scale?
The only thing stopping us is money, which is driving me mad. The government has announced a tender for £26 million to be invested in breakfast clubs, but realistically we need that amount again from the private sector. We need the food industry to step up—there’s enough money in the sector to make sure every child is supported.

In terms of solving the health crisis, I also think food companies need to play a more positive role in society. They need to get the message out about nutrition, and the central importance of recognising what’s good, and what should be a treat. Those boundaries are really blurred. We all have diets with far too much sugar. I think legislation is important in tackling that—banning advertisements for junk food before the watershed, for example, and making sure there are incentives for the medical system to prioritise good dietary advice.

We as a country need to recognise that the school day is a fantastic opportunity to get good food into children—and to teach them about the importance of good food. As a country, I want us to say that this situation is not acceptable; we’re not going to let this level of social failure continue, and potentially drive a pipeline of failure. We need to break through to the public—I think there’s a lack of awareness as to how big the problem is.

You mentioned you have some corporate backers—does this suggest that companies are becoming more aware of their responsibilities?
I think so. There’s a lot of reformulating going on, because of the sugar tax. A lot of big companies have also done it because they believe it will give them a competitive advantage—if you can say you are the company whose cereals are good for kids, for example, it gives you a marketing edge. But companies are there to create value for their shareholders, and that means selling the cheapest food for the most money—and cheap foods are stacked with sugar. Unless we legislate, companies are not going to go as far as they should.

That said, we only survive because of some absolutely wonderful businesses—Quaker Oats, for example, just could not do enough for us. The leaders of that organisation were absolutely shocked by what we had found. But we still have a way to go.

What’s next for Magic Breakfast?
What we need most is for people to help us tell the story—we need people who will say, “I think putting good food in front of hungry children is the right thing to do, and I’m behind it.” There are lots of ways that we can turn that into a plus for businesses as well. The solution is not expensive, and we’ve built up this lovely community of restauranteurs, but we just haven’t got enough support right now to reach all the kids that need us. We’ve got 300 schools on our waiting list. So, the focus is building a network of people who want to help Magic Breakfast in our aim, which is to make sure no child in this country is too hungry to learn by 2020.

We are committed to solving this problem. Magic Breakfast is the most satisfying thing I have ever done, but I wish I could do more—I have, in the past, got to the point where I couldn’t bear it, I was getting so upset because I know that food is just one of many things these children are missing. These kids may not be growing up with enough love and support, they may not have the right clothes, but if I can just do this one thing, at least they will be fed sufficiently for them to be able to learn.