SEATTLE, Washington — Poverty continues to bar some 258 million children and adolescents from the education they require to escape it. Out-of-school rates remain particularly high in the planet’s most poverty-stricken, food-insecure regions. More than half of the children in Sub-Saharan Africa and one in four South Asian children did not attend school on a regular basis in 2018. Many of them are missing out on learning as other concerns such as providing for themselves and their families, often take precedence. Mary’s Meals is actively altering this dynamic.
This Scottish-registered Catholic charity was created in 1992 to help Bosnia-Herzegovina’s suffering population as the Scottish International Relief, but it underwent a rebranding in 2012 following a successful emergency food delivery campaign in Malawi. The initiative gave this nonprofit organization its name and direction – targeting children from impoverished backgrounds to help them break the cycle of poverty. More than two decades later, the NGO operates in 18 countries, supplying daily meals at schools and supporting the victims of humanitarian crises and poverty with relief food and materials.
Making a Difference
By the end of 2019, Mary’s Meals was alleviating hunger in more than 1.6 million children globally. This represented a 14.5% increase in the number of meal recipients since 2018 and saw the integration of 792 new schools into the group’s network. In Madagascar alone, where the Food and Agriculture Organization registered 1.3 million food-insecure people in 2019, some 68 schools, teaching more than 9,000 children, have partnered with Mary’s Meals to feed their pupils a balanced meal containing rice, vegetables and beans.
Mary’s Meals similarly provides students with backpacks, which are assembled by volunteers and equipped with stationery and books that many schoolchildren in the target countries might otherwise struggle to access. This program has been especially impactful in Malawi, where more than 60% of children live in poor households and where spending family funds on those goods remains a luxury. In 2019, 37,432 backpacks were sent to Malawi, with another 8,423 awaiting shipment. Given that the latter’s collective value exceeds $300,000, the backpack donation scheme amounts to an important contribution to the local children’s wellbeing and saves their families considerable sums of money.
Both of these efforts are making a difference and statistical findings illustrate this amply. When Mary’s Meals surveyed some of its partner schools, it found only 13% of teachers heard their students complain of hunger in class once they received school meals. As for the pupils, as many as 98% of attested to having better concentration in lessons after having some food.
COVID-19 and Crises
Despite COVID-19 and the concomitant widespread closure of schools which Mary’s Meals has traditionally utilized for distributing its nutritional aid, the organization is still serving more than 1 million children. In Kenya, Malawi and Zambia, its staff has set up a system whereby the students’ parents collect the food at the usual site and bring it home. Similar projects are being established in India and Haiti.
This is not the first time that Mary’s Meals had to adjust its operations in a time of crisis. When civil war broke out in South Sudan in 2013, it continued to feed more than 20,000 school children and even expanded its outreach to another five schools. Likewise, Mary’s Meals fed entire families in Malawi’s southern provinces as a series of tropical cyclones displaced many locals and led them to take shelter in primary schools in 2019.
Reliance on Volunteers
Mary’s Meals remains a highly volunteer-oriented nonprofit, as evidenced by how much it strives for transparency. It not only has committed itself to spend at least 93% of its funding on direct action and repeatedly exceeded that goal, but it routinely lists the meals it offers as evidence that the children are eating healthily. Thus, for instance, Kenyan students receive a mixture of rice, maize and beans, since these products are readily found in the country.
Thanks to this transparency, the group managed to attract 12,000 new donors in 2019, and it boasts an impressive network of volunteers in the U.K. and beyond, who organize local fundraising and awareness spreading activities.
Scottish volunteers also staff seven charity shops selling donated goods and generating enough revenue to feed 13,200 pupils for the entire academic year. Schools and businesses in Scotland have similarly been eager to cooperate by either streamlining backpack donations or raising money for Mary’s Meals as the World Porridge Day initiative.
At the same time, the work on the ground would have been impossible without the local communities’ input. Locals volunteer to monitor the food’s procurement and participate in its preparation and distribution, which in turn contributes to a formidable culture of accountability and ensures that little food is squandered.
Addressing Global Hunger
By feeding pupils, Mary’s Meals instills confidence in them that enrolment in school does not mean doing away with providing for themselves. The organization also importantly demonstrates that education may improve their living standards, not only in the long run when they put the skills learned at school into practice, but also in the short run when they attend classes.
– Dan Mikhaylov