The Magic Breakfast that keeps school kids from going hungry

Posted by Mora McLagan Commissioning Editor - Communications

16th Oct 2011

Oxfam believes that everybody in the UK should have enough money to feed themselves and their families, whether they are in or out of work.  That's why I paid a visit last Friday to The Magic Breakfast club at Randal Cremer school in Hackney, to understand why for an increasing number of families, breakfast is getting harder to provide.

"It's a lifeline" sighs the tired, smartly dressed woman on her way to work in Hackney, London. "I've had to move out to Essex to be able to afford a three bedroom house. I wouldn't be able to have that if I wasn't working full time, and I couldn't work without the breakfast club."

Dionne with her son at Randal Cremer Primary School

This is Dionne, a single mother of two who has recently found herself at the mercy of sharply rising fuel and food bills, against her static wage. Add to this a long working day with a hefty commute into London at either end of it, and the recipe is not only stress and tiredness; but a tightly run ship. Dionne has everything mapped out from dawn till dusk to make sure her children eat healthily and in routine. "Because I don't finish work till six" she tells me, "I have to give the kids dinner at school too, otherwise they'd be eating too late when we get home. So I cook their dinner the night before, then take it to school with us to eat in the evening together at the after school club." Unwilling to sacrifice either her job or her kids' enjoyment of her home-cooked meals, Dionne would simply not get to work at all if it weren't for the school breakfast club, run by Magic Breakfast.

This system works for Dionne, only just. But as our Oxfam poll showed this week, poorer families and individuals alike all over the UK are feeling the pinch the hardest when it comes to feeding themselves and their children. What's more, their financial balancing acts are becoming even more precarious. For parents like Dionne; suddenly having to fix a broken car, buy a new school uniform or take unpaid leave to care for a sick relative could send them spiralling further into debt.

A network of school breakfast clubs around England, Magic Breakfast was set up by social entrepreneur Carmel McConnell. In her previous life as a corporate advisor on business ethics, Carmel was researching her first book Change Activist when she stumbled across the disturbing fact of children arriving at school too hungry to learn. Magic Breakfast was her solution; a charity that provides breakfast at school before the day begins. For those parents who can't afford to make a contribution to the club, Magic Breakfast picks up the bill.  It costs as little as £3.50 to give a child a free nutritious breakfast for a whole month.

Though Dionne is able to pay to use the club at Randal Cremer, she is still feeling the impacts of price rises elsewhere. "I haven't had a pay rise for three years" she tells me. "But each January, my costs go up.  Bus fares go up, train fares go up, petrol is constantly fluctuating up and down, and food obviously... I can just about pay the bills with my wages, but that's it.  I don't have anything extra, even for the kids' birthdays I struggle."

Listening to Dionne, it's tempting to suggest that she takes a back seat for a while, reduces her hours or spends more time at home. But nothing could be further from her mind. "A lot of people have said to me; 'maybe you should take time out of work? Let the government support you for a while because you've been working for such a long time" she explains. "But I've been brought up with a work ethic. My mum was a nurse. She was a single parent too and she struggled along with me. I didn't come out too badly! I'd love it for my children to have the same values; that life is not about people giving you things all the time, it's about you going out there and learning the value of earning it for yourself."

Later on at Randal Cremer breakfast club I meet a second mother with the same name: Dionne. A busy single mum with seven-month-old twins plus two school age children, Dionne is increasingly juggling not just her time, but also her dwindling finances. While living costs like food and fuel have soared in recent months, her income has not. "My statutory maternity pay is nothing at the moment" she tells me. "Especially with the cost of utility bills rising, I'm getting into debt as my wages are not going up.  Electricity and gas bills have gone up, and so has food shopping. I used to be able to do a shop for £250 a month, now I'm spending £150 a week for more or less the same stuff. I am buying more baby stuff, but it can't make that much difference."

Another mother, also named Dionne, with her kids enjoying a Magic Breakfast

Using Magic Breakfast allows Dionne to feed her children in the morning more cheaply, while also freeing up much needed time.  By using the service, she is then able to drop the twins off at her sister's house before starting voluntary work as a classroom helper at the school.

This certainly helps, but again, only just. Dionne has also had to make some drastic changes to her family's lifestyle in recent months. "I'm now having to budget and live a certain standard of life that I'm just not used to," she explains. "I used to drive, but I can't afford to now because of petrol and insurance. It would really help if I could drive though because of the kids.  Lots of buses don't take double buggies, and even if they did there might be a buggy on already. I now need to add on an extra hour in travel time on to every bus journey in order to get anywhere on time!"

Without a car and on a very limited budget, Dionne has also altered the way she shops. It's far more time consuming for her, and a very physical struggle too; "I used to go to the supermarket, but it's hard with no car and also it's the cost. By the time you get to the checkout, you might have gone over your budget. Now, I organise the shopping when the kids are in school.  I have to do two trips, as I'm walking with the buggy and I can't carry everything in one hand."

Cooking is also tightly regimented. "I make a weekly schedule" Dionne explains. "I know exactly what I'm making before I buy it, so I only buy what we'll eat and waste nothing. You don't need to buy own brand sauces, you can make your own with the basics. I'm only buying the essentials." Despite this, Dionne is still struggling to stay out of debt, even with all of her efforts to cook well and cook cheaply.

Meeting Dionne I was amazed by how much she is able to fit into one day and still emerge smiling at the start of the next. But tightening the purse strings has really ramped up the stresses in her life, and as she sees it, across Britain too.

"You've got this budget, and then you've got creditors and debtors hounding you and you just have to make do. If we have to go back to the days of just eating potatoes and spam then we'll have to and I think we are going that way!" Dionne worries for her family, but also for the future of all young people across the UK who are growing up in an increasingly unequal society. Dionne believes the government cuts are worsening the situation, but that the media are also partly responsible; "They portray a certain material lifestyle that not everyone can achieve" she explains. "Society is splitting into two halves; the haves and the have-nots, the people who can achieve this lifestyle and those that can't."

As our food poll showed, the poorest Londoners seem to have particularly severe problems juggling finances for meals. To Dionne though, this is far from a surprise; "London has been broken down into very different areas now. You can predict what is going to happen to the upbringing of a child from one place to another. The difference is right here in your face.

Pupils having their Magic Breakfast

Although she herself is struggling, Dionne still sees herself as better off than many in her area. "I have four kids," she explains, "and I try to get them out of flat as much as possible, but I can only just about afford it. What does someone do who can't, now that all the youth clubs and children's services are shutting?" It's a very good question, and one that's being asked right now up and down the UK.

Dionne says all this had made her want to switch careers, to help young people growing up in poorer urban areas build a better future. That's why she is now volunteering as a classroom helper at Randal Cremer, to get experience to retrain. "I'm becoming more worried about what's going wrong in society today," she says. "But I think that if you give kids the right head start, then you can stop problems like the riots before they happen."

Magic Breakfast is a small step towards making that head start happen for some of the UK's poorest children, and is shining a light on child hunger - the hidden UK story that deserves to be told.

Photos by Lydia Goldblatt

Blog post written by Mora McLagan

Commissioning Editor - Communications

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Mora McLagan