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Feeding the children

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One million children a day are now going to school and being fed thanks to the Argyll-based charity Mary’s Meals. YL sits down with the CEO and founder to find out how it all began

Mary’s Meals is a massively successful global charity which this week reached a  milestone of feeding a million children a day. And yet from my visit to its headquarters and meeting its founder, I would never have known that.

My visit to HQ in Dalmally, near Oban, began with lunch with some Mary’s Meals staff and the man himself – Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow.

He was soft-spoken and laid-back and was sporting a smart casual look of a brown suede jacket and fawn trousers. He wasn’t what I was expecting for the man who set up this worldwide charity, and neither was his HQ.

The press officer had told me that I would be interviewing Magnus in the shed where it all began. Initially I thought the shed was a cute nickname they gave to their modern stylish offices, but I was wrong. It was in fact a shed –  an air-raid shelter-looking shed complete with tin roof and free-standing electric heater with just a few chairs, a table and some posters inside.

I started our interview by asking about our current location. Why keep the shed? Is it some kind of symbol of how far they’ve come? Magnus agreed and told me it also kept them grounded.

Not quite what I was expecting but then that is part of the appeal of Mary’s Meals and Magnus himself. It is refreshing to see a charity almost as it was when it first started and to meet a man who seems uneasy about singing his own praises.

Almost immediately he seemed keen to get away from questions that turned the interview into the Magnus show and from the beginning stressed it was not a one-man-band that has turned this Argyll-based charity into a  success.

“I find it quite hard to describe, I don’t ever think for one minute I personally made this happen,” he tells me.

“It feels more like this has happened to me and yeah I’ve got a leadership role and responsibilities with that. Put it this way: I wouldn’t go to sleep tonight if I thought I was solely responsible for feeding one million children tomorrow.”


Whether he likes to admit it or not, he is definitely responsible for the creation of Mary’s Meals and the Scottish International Relief, a charity he created prior to the one we were here to celebrate.

But while I know what he did, I didn’t know why. I had read stories about how he had seen a news bulletin on a TV about conflict in Bosnia and along with his brother, the 24-year-old Magnus decided to spend a week’s holiday from work collecting aid and taking it over to eastern Europe.

When I asked if he had always been politically and socially aware of what was going on in the rest of the world, he immediately rejected the idea of being any way political and only slightly agreed to being socially aware with a “Yes I guess I was”.

So what made a young man do what he did? Well having heard his story from the man himself, to me it seems as simple as a chance to help people.

Magnus told me: “It was a news bulletin about a particular refugee camp in Bosnia where people were suffering in a horrible way. It was just a piece about the refugee crisis there and all the people that had lost their homes and everything they owned and the plight they were now in.

“I suppose it really resonated with us as it was the same part of the world that we had visited in 1983. We had been there. Like everyone to an extent we were shocked that there could be a war in Europe in our time but even more so because we had been to that place and known people there.

“I remember images of people  –  I don’t know if you would describe them more as concentration camps, I think you would – those places where they were holding prisoners who had not been fed properly for a long time. I remember those images as well as just images of refugees generally who had lost their homes.

“I remember feeling horrified by that and appalled that could be happening. I think there are similarities between Bosnia and Scotland – landscape, people, feels similar to me – and I suppose that was partly why I felt so shocked that it could be happening in that place, I was deeply shocked.

“That evening my brother Fergus and I were having a pint in the local pub here and talking about how we felt about that thing we had just seen and said maybe we could launch a little appeal,  take it there and try and help the people, which is what we did.”

They asked locally for the most basic items such as food and clothes and joined a group who were organising convoys out of London to Bosnia.

Magnus said their time in Bosnia was “very moving” and it was shocking seeing “houses pockmarked with gun fire and shelled houses and bridges that had been destroyed across the big river”.

“There was evidence of war everywhere. We met people and heard their fears and also spoke to the people in those refugee camps, it was all very sad and moving.”

Also surprising was what was waiting for the men back home – a whole shed load of aid that had continued to come in even after they had left. It was this generosity that led Magnus to set up his first charity, SIR.

He quit his job, sold his house and for the next year made around 22 deliveries to Bosnia with aid while friends and family continued to raise aid back home.

In the next few years the charity expanded into Romania and Liberia in Africa before arriving in Malawi in the early 2000s to undertake some emergency feed programmes.

“It was a year of terrible famine and during the course of that, I met this family in one of the villages,” he said.

“In some ways a typical family, living in a small two-bedroom mud hut.  The father had died some time before and Emma, his wife, was now dying of Aids and she was surrounded by her six children.

“Emma said to me there is nothing left for me now except to pray that someone will look after my children when I am gone. She was really panicking about that because everyone she knew in that village were already caring for orphaned children.

“And then I started talking to her oldest child sitting beside her. He was called Edward. He would have been about 14 years old.

“Talking to him, I said to him, what are your hopes and ambitions in life? And he said to me: ‘I would like to have enough food to eat and I would like to go to school one day’. That was all his ambition was at 14 years of age. And those words never left me.

“They really resonated, not because it was an out-of-the-blue situation, I’d been meeting lots of children in the years leading up to that who were out of school and hungry but those words he spoke really brought everything into sharp focus, that link between hunger and being deprived of an education and therefore that cycle of poverty that people can’t escape from without the possibility of learning to read and write.”

It was a hugely important encounter, one that led to the birth of Mary’s Meals. That conversation took place in November 2002 and almost immediately the charity started providing meals in early 2003.

Now, 12 years later, Mary’s Meals feeds one million children a day across 12 countries – a milestone that Magnus said they had not been aiming for but just found themselves reaching.

“I’ve never been motivated by numbers or targets at all,” he said.

“This number is such a significant one that I suppose more than anything I think of it as the first million and I feel really that our work has just begun.

“I feel we’ve learned some things and we’ve proved some things. We’ve proved this works and that it is possible to do it on a certain scale.

“More than ever it leaves me with the question of why would any child in the world go a whole day without eating a meal? That vision that every child can do that burns more brightly than ever for us.

“One of the things I love is that we are now at a stage where we are meeting people leaving school and going onto university or paid work or whatever who tell us I might not be alive now and I certainly wouldn’t have gone to school, and that’s a wonderful thing.

“They are the kind of evidence that this does work and that is ultimately what it is all about. They are the people that are actually going to solve the problems of poverty in their countries. So I love going and meeting them, there are some real characters.”

He told me about a young man called Jimmy who is from one of the poorest slums in Haiti.

He received meals from the charity and is now becoming a famous musician, singing on national TV about his childhood.

Magnus had other stories about young men now playing for the Malawi national football team and others who have now left school and gone to university. But what I wanted to know was, what happened to Edward?

“I met him again, I tried to find him a few times in the years since but couldn’t find him and I thought I never would. But last year I tried again and I did find him,” he said.

“It was quite difficult. Part of me was dreading going back to see him because I knew Mary’s Meals had come too late for him. And so I was kind of dreading what I would find.

“It was tough meeting. He is still very, very poor and has this huge sense that his life is very hard because he never went to school and he still carries that with him.

“So it was tough but what was wonderful was his younger siblings go to school and eat Mary’s Meals and he has one son who is going to go to school next year and eat Mary’s Meals then. So that was wonderful. It was very emotional.

“He remembered meeting me, I didn’t think he would but he did, so it was wonderful to be able to explain to him that his words launched this thing and how they’ve reverberated around the world ever since.

“I think it was quite hard for him to get his head around it. But I think there was a real sense of happiness and pride as it started to sink in.”