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
"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
"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
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
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
"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
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
"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
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."
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
"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
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."