Mary's Meals
Podcast #92 — Aired May 16, 2016

Every child deserves an education and enough to eat. That’s the simple, yet powerful mission behind Mary’s Meals, a nonprofit that feeds over a million school children each day. This week on BetterWorldians Radio we’re talking with founder Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow about his inspiration to start this life changing charity and how it is making a difference for kids around the world.

 

 

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Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow
Founder, Mary's Meals

Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow is the founder of Mary’s Meals. Magnus started his career as a Salmon farmer in rural Scotland, but when the Balkan conflict began, he and his brother were so moved by the scenes on television that they gathered a jeep-load of aid and joined a convoy travelling to Bosnia to distribute it. On his return home, Magnus expected to resume his job, however, he came back to discover that the public had carried on donating and instead he continued organizing and distributing aid. In 2002 his work led him to Malawi, where he met a family whose situation would alter the course of his work, and Mary’s Meals was born. The charity now works with schools in 12 different countries, serving over 1.1 million children every day.

Episode Transcript

Raymond Hansell
Hi. Welcome to BetterWorldians Radio. BetterWorldians Radio is a weekly broadcast whose mission is to uplift and inspire you to make the world a better place. I'm Ray Hansell, joined today by my co-host, MarySue Hansell. BetterWorldians Radio is brought to you by the family team that created the popular social game on Facebook called 'A Better World.'. It rewards players for doing good deeds, while helping to raise money and awareness for charities. To date over 40 million good deeds have been done in 'A Better World' around the world by more than 4 million people. Good deeds include expressions of gratitude, acts of kindness and even sending notes to real-world sick kids, just to name a few. This week, we're talking with Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow, the founder of Mary's Meals. Magnus started his career as a salmon farmer in rural Scotland. But when the Balkan conflict began, he and his brother were so moved by the scenes on television that they gathered a jeep-load of aid and joined a convoy travelling to Bosnia to distribute it. On his return home, Magnus expected to resume his job. However, he came back to discover that the public had carried on donating and instead he continued organizing and distributing aid. In 2002 his work lead him to Malawi, where he met a family whose situation would alter the course of his work and Mary's Meals was born. The charity now works with schools in 12 different countries, serving over 1,1 million children each and every day. Hello Magnus, welcome to BetterWorldians Radio.

Magnus
Hello, thanks for having me on.

Raymond Hansell
You're very, very welcome. I guess we should begin by talking about how this all came about during the Bosnian conflict in the 1990. Can you tell the listeners a little bit about your experience there?

Magnus
First of all, it was really just meant to be a very small effort to try and do something to try and help the people who were suffering so much that time, during the war in Bosnia. It really came about because my brother and I had watched a particularly moving news bulletin about the refugees in Bosnia at that time. We began saying to each other, 'Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could just do one small thing and help those people?' and we just organized a very small local appeal asking people to give us food and clothing and medicine and so on. We drove that from our home in the Highlands of Scotland across Europe into a refugee camp in Bosnia and we delivered those items - really thinking that it was just going to be this one-off effort to help. We both just took one week's leave from our jobs to do that and the only reason it continued beyond that was, when I came home, I found this avalanche of donations pouring into our home. At that point I decided to give up my job and somebody gave me a truck and I began driving that back and forth for the next couple of years. that was really how this work was born and in many ways, that story of making a little appeal on behalf of people who are suffering and then just being overwhelmed by people's goodness and kindness- in many ways that is our story ever since.

Raymond Hansell
That's amazing, that is amazing. You guys were really guided, that's for sure. That work brought you to Malawi where you met a little boy named Edward. How did Edward inspire you?

Magnus
That's right, we eventually arrived in Malawi ten years after that delivery of aid to Bosnia and then in the years between working in all sorts of different countries. But in Malawi that year, because there was a terrible famine in 2002 and we were there taking food into villages where people were literally starving. Whilst doing that I met Edward and his family. his father had already died, his mother was dying when I met him and he was lying on their mud floor in their home and he was surrounded by her six children. Edward was the oldest of them and I began talking to Edward. At one point in the conversation I said to Edward, 'You know Edward, what are your hopes? What are your ambitions?' and he looked at me and he said, 'I'd like to have enough food to eat and I would like to be able to go to school one day.'. And that was it. That was the extent of Edward's ambition at 14 years of age and it was really the plight of Edward and those words that he spoke and that recognition that millions of children are out of school every day because of hunger. That's what sparked the birth of this mission of ours.

Raymond Hansell
So what did you actually first set out to accomplish with Mary's Meals and tell our listeners a bit about how you went about doing that?

Magnus
The response to Edward's words and the plight of so many children like him is really very simple in terms of the mission of Mary's Meals. That is to provide one good meal every day in a place of education so that we meet the immediate need of the hungry child for food, but at the same time we're tackling the underlying cause of poverty by serving that food in a way that enables children to come into the classroom and to gain that education that can set them free. And from the beginning, for us, it was really important that that project was locally owned and from the beginning this was all about working with and through local communities where people volunteer their time to cook and serve those meals every day. So, we began just in one small school at the end of that famine year, in 2002, feeding about 200 children. And very, very quickly could see that this wasn't just a nice idea, it was something that was really going to work because almost immediately children who'd never been to school before began coming because of the promise of that meal.

Raymond Hansell
And that was, in many cases, I suppose, was the primary meal that the children received during the day?

Magnus
Yes, sadly, it very often is. Almost always children in communities like those ones in Malawi would certainly never eat before school, and at best, they'll get something else to eat in the evening. But yes, very often that's their primary meal.

Raymond Hansell
And the number of meals you provide per day to school children all over the world grew very quickly, as you mentioned. Today, you actually serve over a million meals every single day. What impact do those meals have on the children you serve. Can you give me some sense of that impact?

Magnus
Yes, it's incredible because we are, you know, those meals are being served in all sorts of different countries, different cultures, different environments: from slums in Haiti to semi-arid deserts in northern Kenya. Of all these we see it has the same impact: it brings the very poorest children into school, children who have sometimes never been to school before and also it starts bringing children who used to come to school just now-and-again or some days because they were often sick, often hungry. They start to come to school every day. Then, over a longer period of time, we see that academic performance improves dramatically, partly because of that attendance improvement but also because children who are previously unable to concentrate and learn because of hunger are able to to do that. So it has very, very dramatic effects and we've spent a lot of time collecting the data, collecting the evidence to prove just how enormous that impact is.

Raymond Hansell
And as far as getting the word out, is this largely just people spreading the word verbally among themselves from village to village- that this is now available at such-an-such a location and it begins to swell from there?

Magnus
Yes, in terms of on the ground where we serve the meals, yes absolutely. Villages without Mary's Meals would hear about it and come to us and request that we begin in their villages. We also, at this stage in Malawi, would be taking an approach where we're trying to blanket-cover every district or every county that we go into because what we see - if we don't do that - we see the children who are going to school without meals, if they hear about Mary's Meals in a school maybe even four miles away, they'll walk every day to the other school. And we don't want to cause a migration from one school to another. We want children to be able to go to school in their own community. So, as much as possible, we try to plan this now that we're rolling it out across whole districts and regions at a time.

Raymond Hansell
That's really smart. How are the school meal programs run on a local-level? Tell us a little bit about how that all comes together, that those meals are prepared and some of the tactics that are involved in that.

Magnus
Well, absolutely key to it is that local ownership. At the beginning of a new Mary's Meals project, the first thing we would do is to have local community meetings and establish responsibilities so it's very clear the local community are responsible for organizing the local volunteer contribution. And that's massive so every day all of the cooking and the serving of the meals is carried out by local, unpaid volunteers - many of them who are living in real poverty themselves but who are contributing in this amazing way to this mission. And then our part becomes about providing the food that we buy in bulk. We deliver that to the schools on a regular bais and we build a small building that acts as a kitchen and a storage room where the food is stored. Then our small team would visit those schools that benefit, at least twice a week to train volunteers, to stock check, to make sure that the food's been used the right way. So, that partnership between our side of responsibilities and those belonging to the local communities is really key. the other hugely important thing is that, as much as possible, we buy food locally. so, today in Malawi our biggest project by far, all of the food that we serve every day, is grown and produced in Malawi, so we're helping the local farmer, we're helping the local economy that way too.

Raymond Hansell
It sounds like a lot of thought and organization has gone into this. I can see how this was leverage-able because it had such a strong foundation. So, my compliments to you and to the people who were involved in your organization for taking the thought and care to really see something through that can actually build on itself and build on itself. We're going to take a short break right now but when we return, we'll talk more to Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow, founder of Mary's Meals. In the meantime, if you're a fan of BetterWorldians Radio, please check out our game on Facebook called 'A Better World.' A Better World encourages habits of goodness, positive mindsets and giving to social causes to make a positive difference in the world. Players do things like express gratitude; share of their acts of random kindness; send get-well notes to real-world sick children and many, many more things. We'd like to congratulate our players in A Better World for a successful April challenge with the Kelly Anne Dolan Memorial Fund. Because you reached our Do-Good goal in that month, we released funds to help support families caring for children with very serious illnesses. This month we're excited to announce that Emily's Entourage is our charity partner of the month of May. When our players complete the God Deed challenge this months, we're release funds to help accelerate research for a cure for cystic fibrosis, with a focus on rare mutations. You can find out more about us and play at facebook.com/abetterworld. We'll be right back.

Raymond Hansell
You're listening to BetterWorldians Radio. We're speaking with Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow, the founder of Mary's Meals. Now, let's welcome back Magnus and my co-host, MarySue Hansell.

MarySue Hansell
Hi Magnus.

Magnus
Hi MarySue.

MarySue Hansell
I'm a little curious, why did you name the program 'Mary's Meals'?

Magnus
It's named Mary, after Mary, the mother of Jesus. We're a non-denominational organization. We're a mission that people of all faiths and no faiths are involved in around the world but those of us who founded the work were motivated by our Christian faith and personally I have a strong devotion to Mary, the mother of Jesus. I think regardless of our faith, she's in many ways a perfect patron for this work, which I think at it's heart is a motherly act of practical love.

MarySue Hansell
I think I saw the YouTube where you visited Mother Medjugorje and that's where you got the inspiration?

Magnus
That's right. I managed to go- there's a place in Bosnia-Herzegovina where there had been reports of apparitions of the Virgin Mary over the last 30 years now and it's become an enormous place of international pilgrimage. It's a place I visited first when I was only 15 years of age and it had a profound effect - not just me but my whole family - in terms of our faith, lives and at that time it was just a very quiet, unheard of village in Bosnia but it's grown into this place where hundreds of thousands of people visit from all over the world every year now.

MarySue Hansell
That's wonderful, that's a place I'd like to visit some day too.

Magnus
I'd recommend it.

MarySue Hansell
Thank you. Mary's Meals also supports homes for young people with HIV in Romania. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Magnus
That was one of the projects that pre-dated this work of Mary's Meals. We began that project in the late 90's. Initially I was being invited into Romania to take aid into hospitals where children had been abandoned. I began working in this hospital where there are many children who are HIV positive, who were horribly, horribly neglected. Children who were eleven years old who couldn't walk simply because no one had ever lifted them out of their cots for long enough fro them to learn how to walk. Every week, working in that hospital children were dying alone. It was a really horrible, horrible place. Initially we began trying to help by giving those children things: toys, blankets, more food. But we realized very quickly we weren't really going to change their lives. What they really needed was someone to pick them up and to love them and to care for them. so we hatched a dream together with these beautiful Romanian friends of ours who worked as volunteers in those hospitals. We actually dreamed to open homes to bring those children out of that environment and we did that. We eventually emptied this particular hospital ward that I'd visited into three homes that we'd built. And it's just been the most amazing project. We thought we were opening hospices where those children would live a short, but at least dignified life. But it's become something completely different. Most of those children we took out are today young adults, three of the girls we took out of that hospital- I've been back for their weddings two summers ago in Romania. Just that project alone has taught me so much about how love really can transform what might appear on the surface to be a hopeless situation. t taught me a lot, that project.

MarySue Hansell
That's wonderful. You wrote a best-selling book about your experiences called 'The Shed that Fed a Million Children'. Can you tell us briefly what you put in that book?

Magnus
It's really just the story of Mary's Meals. As you might have guessed, I love telling stories, especially the stories of Mary's Meals, stories that I never could have made up. I noticed over the years, giving public talks in lots of different parts of the world, that people seemed to derive enormous joy and happiness out of the Mary's Meals stories. I really decided to write the book as another way of sharing this incredible thing that's happened. Cardinal Bill in New York, when he read the book, described it. He said, 'Mary's Meals is like the modern day miracle of the loaves and fishes.' and that's kind of how I feel about it in many ways, like a series of miracles. This story, as it unfolds today - and it never ceases to surprise me - I still have that sense of awe about what's happening. So I wrote the book to share those amazing stories and for other reasons too. I wrote it as a way of giving a voice to the poorest of the poor, the people that we serve who I've learned so much from. I also write it as a way, I hope, to protect his organization as it grows, that we don't lose sight of our core values. This really is a work of love. I think me recording those origins of how we began, I hope we do that, that we don't ever become an organization that's simply caught up in the numbers and t he statistics around growth- that we don't lose sight of this being about lots and lots of little acts of love.

MarySue Hansell
Well, we definitely need to read that book. That sounds wonderful. You also produced a film called 'Generation Hope' and you were even invited to the Cannes Film Festival. That was a big honor. Tell us about how you're using that film.

Magnus
This film is a really incredible film. It's not just another charity promotion film. It's a very special film in its own right and it's very much based on telling the stories of the young people who've benefited from Mary's Meals and who've now left school and are now becoming the people who are changing the world around them and their communities. At the moment, deliberately, we haven't put it online. what we're asking people to do is to order a DVD version of this. Anyone can do that, to host a screening: to invite friends round. Hundreds of screenings of this film have already taken place all over the world, from cinemas and town halls to schools to people's homes. Just wherever people want to show the film and invite people in to learn about the Mary's Meals mission. In that wasy, it's a hugely important way that this work of ours can grow.

MarySue Hansell
Is there a charge for the film, Magnus?

Magnus
No, there's not. It's simply a matter of going on the website and ordering the screening pack that will be sent out to you. All we ask people to do, is to use that to introduce other people to our mission.

MarySue Hansell
Wonderful. You never really set out to start an organization like this yet, what you've accomplished is just so amazing. What have you leaned about yourself and all the people that have been involved in this wonderful journey?

Magnus
Well, it always kind of amuses me looking back. I think I'm one of the most unlikely people that could have been sued to start this work. I was chronically shy when I was younger, never would've spoken publicly at school or university and I found it really difficult at the beginning when people were asking me.o it's kind of funny- I've spent a lot of my life doing things like this, interviews of all sorts, and I still ahve this sense that I'm absolutely not qualified to do this work. That's one of the reasons why I feel so amazed at the way it unfolds around me. I suppose I have learned a few things along the way: certainly when it comes to other people. Because, more than anything, this is a movement, Mary's Meals. It's not about any of us individually doing anything spectacular on our own. It's about lots of us doing small things that we can do. I suppose I've learned that we can all do something, no matter what we think about ourselves and our lack of qualifications. Also, I've learned just how good people are. That's one of the reasons I think I've got the best job in the world. I just spend my whole life meeting amazing people doing amazingly good things. And that would be one of our core values as an organization, that we believe in the innate goodness of people. We see that when you put something practical in front of people - a really effective, practical way to help those who are suffering - overwhelmingly people want to support that. People will go to great lengths to support that. so, I've learned a lot about the goodness of people, that's for sure.

MarySue Hansell
Wow. On that note, how can listeners help support Mary's Meals?

Magnus
There are just so many ways to get involved. Again, I really don't think that there's anyone who can't get involved if they want to. Some people support our mission by praying for our work, many people support the mission by volunteering their time to give talks in their communities to become trained speakers or to organize fundraising events. Many people just share a little of what they have by donating through our website so that we can buy the food that we need. It's incredible to think, on average, it costs us only $19.50 to feed a child for an entire school year so a $20 donation can change a child's life forever. so many people help that way. There's a whole array of ways to get involved and anyone who's interested in that can go to our website marysmeals.org and learn about lots of different ways to get involved.

MarySue Hansell
Yes, we certainly will do that. How do you, Magnus, hope that the work that's being done at Mary's Meals is helping to make the world a better place?

Magnus
Our vision is that every child in the world can eat at least one good meal a day in their place of education. More than ever, I really do believe that that's possible in this world of plenty. There is no good reason why any child in this world should have to go a whole day without food. There's no good reason why 59 million children are still out fo school today. So, I really do believe that feeding children in school and enabling them to be educated has the power to lift the world's poorest nations out of poverty and we see that starting to happen already. I really do believe that this is a key part of the solution to solving chronic poverty in the world. I believe in many ways that we've just begun this mission of ours.

Raymond Hansell
Well, this has been an amazing journey with us today. I really want to thank you because our listeners, I'm sure, will really want to learn more about Mary's Meals and if by doing so, just go to marysmeals.org. You said earlier that you feel unqualified but I've got to tell you, you sound extremely qualified for this position at this stage of the game. The thought occurred to me- I thought of the 12 people that were selected to be fishermen 2000 years ago to carry on a mission: who were fishermen, tax collectors and what have you. They also felt very unqualified so we're all in good company if we think of ourselves that way.

Magnus
Absolutely, you're quite right.

Raymond Hansell
Thank you for joining us today on BetterWorldians Radio. And by the way, if you're enjoying this episode of BetterWorldians Radio, which I surely did today, please be sure to subscribe to our show on iTunes and give us a review. We're always listening to your feedback so let us know what you think. As we end our show each week, we'd like to share our BetterWorldians mission. We strive to make the world a better place by encouraging the best in everyone. We focus on positive thinking, positive values and positive actions. In short, our vision is to bring out the BetterWorldian in everyone, so that we can all make it a better world. So until next time, everybody please, be a BetterWorldian.