The charity currently organises more than 20,000 breakfasts at primary schools across London and England.
When the clock strikes 8.45am at the St Matthias Church of England Primary School in Stoke Newington, it means only one thing: time to tidy.
As the Mission Impossible theme tune begins to blast out of a CD player on one side of the assembly hall, 20 children at the other end jump up from their seats and start flying around as fast as their little legs can carry them. While one girl tries to finish eating her toast at breakneck speed, others, screeching to a halt in front of tables, put felt tip lids back on, make neat piles of colouring books, and clear away cereal bowls.
This is Breakfast Club, a weekday event set up by the charity Magic Breakfast to provide morning meals for primary school children who would otherwise not have the chance to eat it. Available at this breakfast buffet are Tesco low-sugar, low-sodium cereals, special protein-rich bagels from Bagel Nash (2,243,616 of these were provided last year) and Tropicana unsweetened juice diluted with water. In spite of the many reasons why they are here, clearly this club is the daily highlight for many of its young attendees, the majority of whom are buzzing around between bowls of Weetabix and games of Connect 4 or Snakes and Ladders.
“Breakfast Club is the BEST. And bagels are the BEST,” says an excitable little girl called Bolu as she finishes eating a bagel with butter on it. Opposite Bolu is Mohamed, slowly chewing on a piece of buttered bread, who cannot decide which juice he prefers from the choice of apple, orange or the Capella apple and rhubarb cartons on the table. Never having had rhubarb before (the Copella was bought by the school to encourage tasting), he is briefly flummoxed.
Immediately Bolu jumps up and offers to get Mohamed a cup so that he can sample some, and when he tries it he winces. “It’s sour,” he exclaims. When I mention that rhubarb is a really cool long pink and green plant that grows in the ground, his eyes light up and immediately he and Bolu both decide that rhubarb is their favourite.
After this comes an intense discussion about favourite school subjects. Mohamed likes writing and maths, while Bolu says she likes all subjects:
“I’m a BRAINBOX. I used to be a nerd and I used to have glasses but then Specsavers took them away. So now I don’t have any, which is good.”
Soon, as Bolu is whisked away to practice reading a prayer for the morning’s assemby, we are joined by three others keen to chime in to the breakfast debate. Fortunately it only takes a minute to reach a consensus: bagels, especially with butter on, are the best thing to eat and everyone likes it when the butter melts. Not everyone is keen on strawberry jam, but sometimes jam is “OK.”
On another table Alicia, 7, is writing her name in different colours, while eight-year-old Jahnelle is drawing a picture of some flowers to give to her mum.
“The best thing about being eight is that it’s an even number,” she says. “But also now I have to cook… At home I make rice, and sometimes I mix egg in it – then we don’t need to buy Chinese takeaway.”
Seeing the club in action is a charming sight but knowing the reason for its existence makes it a poignant visit. Magic Breakfast – whose tagline is ‘no child too hungry to learn’ – has been running clubs informally for 16 years. Back in 2001, having interviewed London teachers as part of her research for a book called Change Activist, Carmel McConnell, MBE, was stunned to discover that many of their pupils were attending school with rumbling stomachs. As a result she began buying and delivering breakfast to five Hackney schools and in 2003 formed the charity.
Now, Magic Breakfast organises breakfast for 23,500 students at 480 partner schools in London and England; 380 more are on the waiting list. It has also partnered with a number of London restaurants including Dishoom, Lyle’s, Foxlow and Hoi Polloi, some of whom will be involved with Hackney Fayre, a summer village fete-style fundraiser held in Hoxton Square this Saturday. After that the next plan is to set up in Scotland, as soon as more funding comes in.
Back at St Matthias, three minutes have flown by and now the whole group is lined up, rucksacks in hand, on benches around the room. At 8.50am other children have begun pouring through the school gates and into the playground outside. Satisfied that everything has been cleared away, Breakfast Club leader Miss Emma – also a special needs teacher at St Matthias – lets them walk into the playground to have the register taken with the other pupils.
“I’m here every day with Miss Mary and we tend to have up to 30 children at Breakfast Club on a daily basis, but we’ve had fewer in today,” she explains. “It just depends on parents’ schedules – some of them will always come in as their parents need to get to work, for example we have a family of three children who are regulars. And they just love it. Some of them don’t come at all, though, so some mornings we will cut up bagels and hand them out at the school gates so that they’re not hungry.”
Eight children not present today are on a register for something Miss Emma explains as “meaning that they need our help because they don’t get enough at home. So we’ll wrap up eight bagels in tin foil and give them to those children at playtime.”
It is a hard job, and on top of that she often takes after school clubs until 5pm, but for now she has to put away the Magic Breakfast kit before taking her first lesson.
I walk outside, the hectic dun dun, duhdun beats of Lalo Schifrin’s famous theme song still beating in my ears.
This article was originally published in Evening Standard