“Mary’s Meals feeds over half a million children every single day, encouraging them to attend school and receive an essential education at the same time. It’s not rocket science and it really works” Annie Lennox

Mary’s Meals is first of all a grassroots movement – this is an intrinsic part of our mission, and all who support it are of equal value no matter the type or size of donation…. Some development experts criticize Mary’s Meals (and advise the governments and institutional donors whom they work for not to fund us), suggesting we make it all sound too simple and that this approach of feeding children cannot be sustainable. The environments we work in, the challenges we need to overcome to ensure the schools have food every day, and the problems that people in poverty battle with, are certainly anything but simple. But our core approach is. Annie Lennox, like everyone else who has met us and visited a Mary’s Meals project, certainly knows we are not rocket scientists, but she is also in no doubt that we don’t need to be. The tens of thousands who support us with small donations all over the world and the thousands who cook for the kids in their communities are generally not rocket scientists or ‘development experts’ either, but they immediately see that this approach is necessary and life-changing.

And the question about sustainability always bewilders me because I am not sure what can be more essential in creating long-term sustainable solutions than ensuring children receive the nutrition they require and an education. The word itself – ‘sustainability’ – can be problematic because I notice that people tend to use it in various and often vague ways. I once asked a room full of MBA students who had raised the subject of sustainability to define the word for me, and the spectrum of answers put forward was startling. Actually, ‘sustainable development’ was defined in 1987 by the Brundtland Commission, which was established by the UN to do just that, as ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’. I cannot see how Mary’s Meals could ever be accused of falling short against that definition and I can only suppose that the issue is much more about timescales. These sorts of funders normally expect an ‘exit strategy’ after three to five years of funding. It seems the perceived wisdom in development circles is that if a project is not complete after that length of time, then it is flawed. We chose to take a different view of how long it takes to build something that will really last and fundamentally change things for the better – and can make that choice because our work is supported by a global movement of people who agree. We choose to create a sustainable approach based on their generosity.

But there are connected conversations that are harder to reconcile and more disturbing than a difference in opinions about timetables. Once I met with people from an organization running schools in Haiti who realized that many of the kids coming to their schools were chronically malnourished. They asked us about our model and we expressed interest in expanding our project to their schools, so the children would be fed. But they did not want to partner with us because they did not think our approach was ‘sustainable’. I asked them to suggest how they would do this in a ‘sustainable way’ and they said they wanted to work on some things related to micro finance. That was several years ago and to my knowledge the kids attending their schools have never received school meals. I would rather approach this the other way round. The first imperative is the hungry child in front of us. They need food today, not in ten years’ time.

It makes me sad when people in development almost talk like these children are ‘the problem’ rather than the principal builders of a new and brighter future. Children of today should never be sacrificed to the Moloch of a future that none of us can know. And the future belongs to those children at least as much as it does to any of us who think we are experts in development.


The Shed that Fed a Million Children, pp. 247-49 (William Collins, 2015)

Magnus Macfarlane-Barrow – CEO and Founder of Mary’s Meals
Photo credit: Chris Leslie