Op-Ed: We Must Connect the ‘Crucial’ Link Between Hunger and Education


I have spent a long time learning about the vicious circle of poverty, in which millions of children are trapped. But it was the words of a 14-year-old boy I met in Malawi that really got me thinking about the crucial link between food and education.

My encounter with Edward happened during the famine of 2002 in Malawi. He was sitting beside his mother who was dying from AIDS on a bare mud floor. She prayed someone would look after her children when she was gone.

I asked Edward what he hoped for in life. “To have enough food to eat and to go to school one day” was the sum of his ambition.

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Today, around the world, 67 million children miss school because of poverty.

Instead of gaining the education which can set them free from poverty, they are working in fields, begging on street corners, or scavenging among the garbage to survive. Hundreds of millions more attend school so hungry that they are unable to concentrate and learn. 

At the end of that famine year, we began the Mary's Meals campaign and served daily meals in a small primary school, with the help of local volunteers. The idea was that by linking the hungry child's immediate need for food with the longer term need for education, we could help break the poverty cycle.

Almost straight away we could see this wasn't just a nice idea—it was something that worked.

Ten years on, Mary's Meals is now providing meals in places of education to over 700,000 children every day in 16 countries.

Former child soldiers in Liberia, semi-nomadic children in Kenya, and working Dalit children in India are amongst those whose lives are being changed by this community-owned solution.

Whenever possible we buy locally-grown food to help the small holder farmers, while the volunteers, over 65,000 in Malawi alone, are often parents of pupils who benefit. 

On average it costs us $16.80 USD to provide school meals to one child for an entire year.

In Malawi, over 20 percent of the primary school age population receives Mary's Meals. The school role increased by 18 percent after the introduction of meals, and academic performance and attendance also dramatically improved.

I was back in Malawi recently with award-winning filmmakers, Grassroots, who were working on Child 31, an incredible documentary which tells the story of Mary's Meals.

It was deeply moving to spend time with a 12-year-old girl who, since the death of her mother, has been the head of her household. Often the meal she and her two younger brothers receive at school is the only thing she and her brothers will have to eat.

I’ve also had the privilege of meeting young people, like Jimmy, who has been set free by Mary's Meals. He grew up in one of Haiti's poorest and most violent slums. On the day we met, he was celebrating being accepted to college.

Jimmy said he would never have been able to go to school without Mary's Meals and now he would be able to go on to study agriculture.

This made him so happy because his biggest desire was to help the people of Haiti grow more of their own food so they would no longer rely on aid. 

Our vision is that every child in the world should be able to receive one good meal each day in their school. That’s possible in this world of plenty—a world where we grow easily enough food for everyone.

For more information on Mary’s Meals and the film Child 31, please visit www.marysmealsusa.org

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Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow is the founder and chief executive of Mary's Meals, an organization that runs school feeding projects in communities where poverty and hunger prevent kids from gaining an education. He was names one of CNN's 'Top Ten Heroes' in 2010.