Sitting at a child-height canteen table with fixed stools in Surrey Square Primary School’s hall, in south-east London, at 8am, Ms McConnell is deep in conversation with children who are brandishing their breakfast-club favourite, jam-smeared bagels.
The children are eating a Magic Breakfast. “What do you think about the breakfast? How can we get more of your friends to come?” I hear her ask, nodding along with the advice.
It was while she was researching whether we now lived in a richer and fairer society for her book Change Activist in the year 2000, that five Hackney headteachers each told her in turn that they were having to bring in breakfast food to feed pupils who were too hungry to learn.
“It just floored me. Children being hungry in Hackney? Hang on!” she says, still apparently finding it hard to believe.
Steering clear of any judgement about the route to poverty, she is matter-of-fact: “You cannot have hunger in a rich society. That is a wrong thing, and particularly when it stops education.” She considers education the “foundation stone” for building a successful life. And this belief drove her to buy and deliver breakfast to the schools every week. “I’m not from education. I’m not a nutritionist. I thought, what can I do?”Her year-long delivery service, which required Ms McConnell to remortgage her home, formed the foundations of Magic Breakfast, which became a charity in 2003. It now delivers nutritious food consisting of cereal, porridge, bagels, fruit and juice to 16,000 children in 400 schools every morning – all for only 22p per child, per day. The charity helps the schools to set up, structure and supply breakfast clubs that the school’s own staff then run.
Ms McConnell says she was a “full-on social activist” before Magic Breakfast, and recalls her time involved in anti-nuclear protests in the United States and at Greenham Common in the 1980s, as well as protests against deportation and for rainforest conservation. Instigating change is something that she learnt from her family while growing up in both Northern Ireland and Dagenham. Her father, whom she credits with giving her a world view, “had a sense that you can use your life to make a difference, and certainly gave that to me and my sister”.
Ms McConnell, who lives in north London, has used the love she experienced as a child as a blueprint for her charity work. “I was raised with lots and lots of love. I was lucky enough to be in a home where we didn’t have money… but there were huge amounts of love and there was the expectation that we could prioritise having the best food we could because that would be the best way to look after ourselves.
“At the core of it, [Magic Breakfast] is about love… We can be the brokers of a huge amount of human compassion that there is and I think [is] dormant. It’s our job to be the catalyst to orchestrate that compassion and turn it into practical support.”
She lists some of the “heart-breaking” stories that she has heard: children crying in class because of severe stomach pains, a family of 10 living in one room where the children’s core diet of rice gave them distended bellies, a family in Manchester where a single packet of sausages formed the Christmas dinner. “If you’ve ever sat with a child who is eating so compulsively because they’re so hungry, it’s the most upsetting thing.
“A child being hungry is a pain at the centre of the family. A mother not being able to give a child the food that they need is one of the most fundamental breakdowns of the emotional basics of being alive. It tears you apart.”
Does she agree with Baroness Jenkin’s comments last month that “poor people don’t know how to cook”, citing her own porridge, costing only 4p a bowl? “I think it got picked up because it sounded like an attack, but I don’t think it was really meant like that… I do think it was taken out of context. There is ideological noise that’s unhelpful,” Ms McConnell reflects.
Her campaign is accelerating. She came fourth on a list of 2014 Game Changers identified by Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, and the charity was named as Downing Street’s Employee’s Charity of the Year in 2012.
But, with a general election approaching, she now wants all party leaders to step up and commit to solving the hunger problem for good, not only to save the National Health Service money but to avoid an inevitable decline in achievement.
“We as a country can either say, ‘Let’s invest in the nutrition that means that [children] will be able to concentrate’ or we say, ‘No, we don’t do that and we build a pipeline of failure’,” she says, almost disbelieving that there are even two options.
Businesses and their ethics (or lack of them) regularly come under fire. Ms McConnell is a champion of social enterprises and for 15 years, she ran a consultancy in the City, advising companies on how to build ethics and trust.
She believes that “business leaders need to learn from activists”, among the things they could learn are clarity of purpose and a passion for a better world.
The goal for Magic Breakfast is to end breakfast hunger by 2020. She wants schools to start funding their own breakfast clubs, and she also wants to solve the problem of child hunger during the school holidays, with an initiative called Magic Breakfast 365.
Ever the activist at heart, Ms McConnell has big plans. She believes that by using corporate partnerships – the charity currently works with Tropicana, Bagel Nash, Tesco and Quaker Oats – the Magic Breakfast approach could go global.
“It seems to me that child hunger anywhere on this planet doesn’t need to be a fixture. It’s a temporary problem.” Though she says, with a smile, “one that will probably take me the rest of my life, I think”.
The Magic Breakfast founder laughs at herself: “I think I have got activism in my DNA.” With such aspirations, it’s a good job, too.
Oats and hope
A new campaign by Magic Breakfast and partner Quaker Oats will raise awareness of the hundreds of thousands of children arriving at school too hungry to learn.
The Feed Their Future television and packaging campaign launches tomorrow in a four-week drive for change. Ian Ellington, general manager of Quaker UK, said that it hoped to raise “awareness of the impact that hunger has in the classroom”. He added: “Not eating after a night’s sleep can have a real and direct impact on a child’s ability to concentrate and learn effectively, which may impact their ability to reach their potential long-term achievements.”
Quaker will donate an additional 450,000 breakfasts this year in an effort to stop hunger being a barrier to education.
To donate £3 to Magic Breakfast, enough to provide breakfast for one school child for almost a month, text “OATS14 £3” to 70070