"These kids only have one chance at childhood, and one chance at education. Education is going to be their best way out of poverty. By feeding and valuing them, Magic Breakfast makes a practical difference to these children every single day"
Extended Hours Coordinator, DeBohun Primary School, Enfield.
When you think about places in the world where child hunger acts as a barrier to education, the UK probably isn't the first location to spring to mind. Somewhere without development, without resources - maybe, but you would hope not in the sixth richest economy in the world.
I am the founder and Chief Executive of Magic Breakfast and I remember being shocked to my core when I was told that teachers in London had to bring in food every day for hungry children, simply in order to teach. That was what drove me, fifteen years ago, to start a charity to try to help.
Magic Breakfast now provides a healthy breakfast free of charge to more than 430 UK schools, making sure 16,000 children get what their bodies need to be able to function and enjoy the most important lessons, which are taught in the morning. One hungry child in a class is heart breaking, but in all our schools there are many, and we have over 250 schools on our waiting list for urgent food aid. That's more than it's ever been and I am worried that we have a child food crisis that is getting worse.
Before I say more, let me go to the question you may be thinking. Why aren't the parents doing it? Why should a school, or a charity have to provide breakfast rather than that child eating a good breakfast at home before school? Well, I asked that question, I ask it again and again. And the reply from schools is that parents are hungry themselves, children go home to empty cupboards, mums and dads are working long hours on low income, and they run out of food. In addition to poverty many families lack the food awareness that says "my child, go to school on an egg".
The growth of food banks demonstrates the change in our society. We are seeing families who absolutely love their children and absolutely cannot give them a decent meal. Which frankly upsets the hell out of me, it's not acceptable.
So many schools tell the same story about a child out of control, angry, causing problems - about to be excluded for bad behaviour. Then, after the magic question - "what do you have to eat in the morning?" - "nothing" - "ok come and have a bowl of porridge, or a bagel, or cereal with your friends" - the school discovers a totally different, interested, well-behaved child.
Hunger makes children lethargic or angry or simply unsettled. New research we commissioned as part of our Feed Their Future report finds that, for 4 out of 5 teachers, mornings are more stressful than they should be because their pupils haven't eaten breakfast. Over 66% of these teachers say they can identify if a child has eaten or not just by observing behaviour.
All our schools report big improvements in attendance, punctuality, concentration and behaviour after a Magic Breakfast is provided regularly. It's so simple. And yet the country is home to over half a million children living in families that cannot afford to feed them. At least that number of children arrive at school too hungry or malnourished to learn.*
And, do you know, this is such a solvable problem. It really is. We just need people to know about it, and help us to expand what we are doing already, because it works. It really does. Children are hungry now and missing their chances - now.
Now if you, like me, still hold a belief in the power of education, that it serves as a societal engine room for achieving every drop of potential, the route to becoming a valued and talented member of society, then large numbers of children unable to concentrate because their small brains don't have any fuel - well that seems foolish.
Providing a healthy breakfast costs around 22p a day, so it's not expensive. It's an investment, not only in ending hunger for that child right now, but in a better society for all of us, surely?
* Breakfast Consumption in UK school children and provision of school breakfast clubs. A Hoyland, KA McWilliams, RJ Duff & JL Walton: Nutrition Bulletin (2012), 37:232-240.