A Ladder Out Of Poverty

From very humble beginnings a young Scotsman became the driving force behind an Organisation that through a very simple idea is changing children’s lives, around the world, every day.

I first met Magnus Macfarlane Barrow after hearing about a food programme while I was in Malawi, Africa. We met up and he told me how after supporting refugees in Bosnia with clothes and essentials during the early 90’s he had travelled to Malawi. He was shocked to meet one family where the father had died, the mother who had Aids had little time to live, and her young family were struggling to survive. Magnus asked the eldest, a 12 year old boy, what he wished for when he was older. He said he wanted to have enough food in his belly and one day, maybe one day, he would be able to go to school...

That reply was the catalyst for the creation of Mary’s Meals, an Organisation which provides school children with a meal of porridge like food every day, at their school. The porridge provides around 60% of a child’s daily nutrition needs and for many, it is the only meal they receive each day.

Magnus was clear, right from the start that if a meal could be provided at the local school then attendances would rise, children would be able to concentrate, and they would gain an education and so help them break out of poverty. I visited a school in Dedza, Malawi where there was no feeding programme. Attendances were irregular, the children had no uniforms, books or pencils. One year later, after fundraising allowed the building of a kitchen unit, Mary’s Meals started their feeding programme. The school role jumped from 800 to over 1,500. Uniforms were donated by a close supporter and books and pencils became the norm. The impact of providing a nutritious meal was huge. Children who previously stayed at home were now able to be fed and educated, families saw the benefits of healthier children, they received help to heighten awareness of Aids and experienced more active and happy children wanting desperately to gain knowledge. I met children who were 1st year attendees, aged 17! Such was the power of combining food in their bellies with learning. They were proving that when there was no food, there was no school for them, but now they could have both and they could have a better future.

Typically a Malawian famer will have a small piece of rough land which is worked to provide the basic needs of the family – maize, beans and some other vegetables. Work on the land is hard and backbreaking. Basic tools only and everyone in the family needs to lend a hand. With intense heat and variable rainfalls, the success of the crops is always a gamble. Mary’s Meals were careful to ensure the feeding programme in Malawi was carefully structured to give ownership to the Community. The maize is sourced from local farms with a fair price set. The processing of the maize to form the flour is centred in the Capital, Blantyre. By organising local farmers and the mills, the profits return directly to the farmers, who can build their farms, buy fertilisers and create irrigation to boost crop yields.

Once funding is achieved, designated schools have a kitchen unit constructed and equipped. That kitchen also doubles as an additional class room from time to time. The Community are responsible for the preparation of the porridge and groups of parents and Community members take it in turn to do the cooking and serving of the meals. Mary’s Meals has widened its reach to a number of other Countries across the World such as Ecuador, Haiti and Liberia - the same model, the same results. The programme started in Malawi in 2002 feeding just 200 children each day. The success is almost unbelievable with over 800,000 school children now being fed every school day. Around 625,000 of these are in Malawi. Magnus says the work has only just started. There are still around 2 million school children in Malawi alone that would benefit from the food programme, and that is just one Country.

What is perhaps even more amazing is that the cost of feeding one child, every school day for a whole year, is only NZ$15 or less than 7 cents a day!

A version of this article was also published in the Marlborough Express on the 20th March 2014.