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The voice of Scotland’s vibrant voluntary sector

Published by Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations

TFN is published by the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, Mansfield Traquair Centre, 15 Mansfield Place, Edinburgh, EH3 6BB. The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) is a Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation. Registration number SC003558.

Mary’s Meals made me realise how lucky my children are

This opinion piece is over 6 years old

Sarah Thomson visited Malawi where she met with Mary’s Meals and saw the difference a daily meal is making to children the same age as her own

So many of us just take it for granted – a hearty breakfast, a light lunch, dinner with the family around the table or a supper in front of the TV. And if we miss one of them? Big deal. We can eat at any time. In fact we can eat almost anything at any time. We get to choose… but now I know that millions of others don’t.

I was deeply honoured to be given the opportunity to visit, on behalf of People’s Postcode Lottery, player-supported charity Mary’s Meals. The charity has, to date, received £800,000 in funding, as it feeds children in the world’s poorest communities in school, helping them build a better future.

I knew before I flew out of Edinburgh that I would find the visit to a Mary’s Meals project particularly emotional because I have two children Dylan, aged 16, and Ria, who is 13. In the end I did feel emotional but what I thought might be a harrowing experience actually turned out to be incredibly uplifting and inspiring.

Sarah Thomson
Sarah Thomson

I had an idea of the kind of work that the charity was doing but it wasn’t until my visit that I saw the real impact that just one meal a day is making in children’s lives.

On arrival, we were taken to visit Kachanga Primary School in Blantyre to witness the impact that Mary’s Meals has had since the children started to receive their one meal a day.

Before the daily meals, attendance rates were incredibly low and for those who did turn up, they were often so hungry that they were unable to concentrate in class, which invariably meant they would leave early.

However, since food became part of the school day, the transformation has been truly remarkable. By ensuring that the boys and girls are now being fed even just one meal a day, they are far more motivated to attend, are infinitely more focused and less lethargic and ultimately able to reap the rewards of education.

The school itself only has a handful of buildings, some with roofs but no walls. Classrooms are basic but effective, with desks, chairs and blackboards, however, it is all a world away from what we’re accustomed to in the UK with computers and whiteboards being readily available in most classrooms.

Most of the girls and boys come from the local village and walk to school, some travelling as far as 5km each way. The school meals they receive are served by volunteers who are often parents of pupils or people living in the surrounding villages.

Kachanga Primary has become a real part of the community and everyone is able to see the benefits that Mary’s Meals has offered the children in terms of their education and giving them a future of opportunity and, most importantly, hope.

The school’s head teacher told us how proud she is that some students are now going on to secondary school and we heard how the school has recently seen more than 90% of pupils passing their exams. We met a girl who wants to be a driver when she is older, as she has seen the drivers delivering the porridge meals for the children, and one boy who told us how he dreams of being an engineer and building something that can help others.

Primary education is free in Malawi and the school currently has around 1,200 children enrolled. The children start school from the age of six although some children as old as 18 or 19 attend having had to repeat years if they don’t pass the year they are in.

One thing that really struck me is that despite this school having as many pupils as the high school that my own children attend, it was a fraction of the size, with none of the technology or facilities we take for granted; it made me realise how lucky my children, and children across Britain, are.

The visit was an overwhelmingly positive experience, and one of the things I took away from it was the enthusiasm of the Mary’s Meals workers, the head teacher and teachers we met and the children, who so clearly love to be at school.

It’s easy to understand why so few of them were in a hurry to leave, even although lessons had ended for the day. The school’s vision is to “ensure that all learners are valued and enable them to achieve their full social and academic potential within a positive, caring, respectful and safe environment.”

It certainly seems to be doing that.

After a few days I returned home, but felt so utterly inspired by the charity, the project, and the sheer impact that just one meal can make.

Sarah Thomson is process manager at the People's Postcode Lottery