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Health: Too hungry for learning

01 May 2015

Christine Miles talks to the founder of Magic Breakfast, a scheme to fight rising levels of child hunger

Hungry work: Children at St John's MakeLunch "kitchen" in Farley Hill, Luton, pick the toppings for their muffin-based pizzas, helped by parents, and volunteers from the church and community

Hungry work: Children at St John's MakeLunch "kitchen" in Farley Hill, Luton, pick the toppings for their muffin-based pizzas, helped by parents, an...

CARMEL McCONNELL is zealous about breakfast. School lunches are important, she says. She was, after all, part of the panel of experts on the Government's School Food Plan which extended free school meals to all four- to eight-year-olds. But, as the founder of the charity Magic Breakfast, her main concern is the first meal of the day.

"The most important lessons are taught in the morning, and these children are not able to get their three or four hours of learning because of hunger," she says of the 16,000-plus children that Magic Breakfast is currently feeding every day in 430 primary schools.

"We've focused on education: our strap line is 'Fuel for learning.'" But it is a problem that needs to be shared across the agendas of health and education, she believes. "Very hungry children are unwell, and very hungry families have got health problems that are costing this country a fortune.

"School nurses say that they are now dealing with malnutrition as a major issue, and Dr Colin Michie [the chairman of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health nutrition committee] was saying on the TV programme Inside Out that he's never seen as much hunger-related illness in the NHS - everything from scurvy, rickets, and TB on the extreme side, to persistent colds, coughs, nothing healing; no nutrition in their little bodies."

The education benefits of breakfast, she believes, are overwhelmingly clear. "All of our schools have seen big improvements in attendance, punctuality, concentration, and behaviour; it's just that breakfast has not been on their radar.

"We want this national shift in mindset - not only in the teaching community, but across the board. 'Breakfast is the most important meal of the day': so goes the cliché; but, in terms of those four important hours of lessons, it really is.

"We're putting an awful lot of effort as a country into making sure that lunches are right, and that's perfect, but that's for afternoon classes that are not so important as the morning classes. So [we are] reinforcing the link to the health and educational outcomes; and then the schools want to do it themselves." 

A SOCIAL activist and business-woman, Ms McConnell started Magic Breakfast after working on a book about social activism in business, Change Activist: Make big things happen fast (Momentum, 2002). During the course of her research she was brought into contact with five primary-school head teachers in Hackney, all of whom "had children in the school who simply could not concentrate because they were too hungry", she says.

"The head teachers were describing families that had no food in their cupboards, who were working long hours, but the bills exceeded their income every week. I thought: 'How can we have kids going into school hungry?'"

Ms McConnell started leaving breakfast items with the school caretakers every Saturday. Word spread, and, before long, 25 other schools were also asking for help. Using profits from Change Activist, and a loan from her own company, Ms McConnell set up Magic Breakfast in response.

Today, with corporate partners Quaker Oats, Tropicana, Tesco, and Bagelnash in Leeds (who supply Magic Breakfast with 10,000 bagels every week at cost), Magic Breakfast's regional warehouse depots in Leeds and Watford supply schools with porridge oats, low-sugar, low-salt Tesco cereals, bagels, and orange juice at a cost of 22p per child per day (£3.50 per week, or £42 per year per child).

THE offer of breakfast in Magic Breakfast schools is for every child who wants it, to avoid stigmatisation. "There is no upper limit of what we will deliver. It's really got to be that the school is able to say: 'We've got no hunger at the start of our school day,'" Ms McConnell says. But, to meet the Magic Breakfast criteria, schools must have more than 35 per cent free school meals (compared to a national average of 18 per cent).

Currently, there are 270 schools on the waiting list. To take a school on, and provide it with free, healthy breakfast food for a year costs the charity an average of £2000.

Running alongside Magic Breakfast's food aid-package, however, is a sustainability programme that, while costing more per year initially, makes each school self-sufficient within two years in terms of provision of breakfast food, and is designed eventually to eliminate the need for the charity. Ms McConnell is also piloting "Magic Breakfast 365" to provide breakfast, cookery skills, and exercise to children in the school holidays."

There are clear geographical hotspots, where a correlation between high levels of poverty and low levels of work and income exist, she says. London is "the child-poverty capital of Europe." Greater Manchester is second; then she lists parts of Birmingham; and then parts of Liverpool.

"But we've got applications from schools, and we've got schools that are partners, in Cheltenham, Weston-super-Mare, and Hampstead. Kensington & Chelsea has one of the highest percentages of families in B&Bs with no cooking facilities; so we are supporting children in Kensington & Chelsea. We're really surprised by how many are in areas that you really wouldn't expect." 

CHILD hunger and malnutrition in schools is a by-product of social failure, Ms McConnell says. She refers to the way banks crashed the economic system; failure to invest in people who do not have the skills to work, or access to work that pays a living wage; rising social inequality; rising living costs (which have a disproportionate impact on the poorest); and the effect of austerity measures, particularly of benefit delays, and sanctions.

"If you're a family working very hard, with limited skills, with limited access to work, you're going to be hungry. In so many schools, they are now saying: 'We now have to assume all the kids are coming in hungry.' We're here because of a very big structural crisis, and child hunger is a manifestation of the economic crisis."

The report Feeding Britain, published in 2014 by the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger and Food Poverty in the UK, says that the rise in foodbanks is happening across other advanced Western economies.

But it also identified that, between 2003 and 2013, Britain experienced the highest rate of general inflation, as well as the highest food, fuel, and housing inflation. In addition, Britain lost the highest proportion of high-paying manufacturing jobs, and has a history of large numbers of low-paid employees.

"What we're seeing is a really deep structural shift of families, particularly of working poor, and that's a brand new, incredibly difficult phenomenon, where children are coming into school hungry because there's no food at home, and their parents are working very long hours in very low-paid work. That is very close to what's happening in the majority of our schools," Ms McConnell says.

"If we had a national living-wage strategy, Magic Breakfast's work would be reduced considerably. If everyone was paid a reasonable wage for the work they are doing, there would not be the level of hunger in this country that there is."

Feeding Britain states that the cost-of-living rise - which, from 2005 to 11 was the first time in post-war Britain that the overall combined proportion of household incomes spent on housing, utility, and food had increased year on year - "has led to an erosion of an effective national minimum, that has led to the existence of hunger, and the rise of the foodbank movement in its wake".

MS McCONNELL was raised in an Irish Catholic family, and says that she believes in God "very strongly. . . I think it was really welcome when the Archbishop of Canterbury made the statement about social inequality. I think people of faith have got a pretty big job to do right now, because it isn't Zeitgeist to talk about solving inequality, and we need to get it up there. 

"We're the sixth-richest economy in the world. To have kids looking in bins for food is disgusting. The analysis is there, but, really, what's needed is more action and more pressure, more public outrage about the state of play as it is." 


Healthy reception

DURING morning registration at Hazelbury Infant and Junior schools, in Edmonton, north London, the topic of conversation is breakfast - bagels, cereal, porridge, and orange juice. Every day, each pupil is offered breakfast while the register is taken. By 9 a.m., every­­thing is cleared away, and the first lesson begins. 

"In 20 minutes, without extra staff costs - because it's done in the classroom - you've got every child offered a breakfast," Ms McConnell says. "I'd love to see that in more of our schools. We want breakfast to be embedded as part of the school day." 

She suggests that there are five or six different ways you can deliver breakfast to a hungry child. Breakfast clubs, which many schools run, are one of them, she suggests, but they are often limited by space, time, or budget.

By far the most effective is what is happening at Hazelbury; but other ways include catered booster-classes, and break­fasts of­­fered at playtime for chil­dren who are persist­ent­ly late. 

"A very hungry child in the classroom is often a silent child." she says. "Very young kids are not saying: 'Miss, I'm hungry.' They might say 'I've got a tummy ache,' but they won't necessarily say that they are hungry, and they don't want to get their families into trouble." 

In schools, Feeding Britain recom­mends the auto­matic registration, by local authorities, of eligible chil­dren for free school meals (the onus is currently on parents to register); free school meals to families who are receiving working-tax credit; parenting and budget­ing to be included in the PSHE curriculum; and Govern­ment action on costing the extension of free school-meal provision during the holidays. 

But the inquiry stopped short of recommending the provision of free school breakfasts, as currently exists in Wales. 

If Ms McConnell could have her way, she says: "Let's turn schools into community hubs for food and skills development; let's make sure that people don't have to go to foodbanks - let's not institutional­ise them."


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