By Brendan Read

Helping the neediest individuals in the poorest countries and raising funds and attracting and retaining volunteers to deliver those programs are daunting challenges at the best of times. But when they are overlaid with a deadly global pandemic the obstacles seem practically insurmountable.

But that is the situation that Mary’s Meals has been in. And amazingly the organization continues to expand its outreach in the face of the unrelenting COVID-19 pandemic.

Mary’s Meals, founded in 2002, and based in Dalmally, UK, is a global movement that sets up school feeding projects in some of the world’s poorest communities. Its mission is to alleviate the chronic hunger experienced by millions of children.

With the help of 16 country affiliate offices, including in Canada, Mary’s Meals reaches more than 1.6 million children with a nutritious meal every school day in 19 countries across Africa, Asia, Latin America, Eastern Europe and the Caribbean.

Mary’s Meals Canada joined the global network in 2012 as a corporation and 2013 as a registered charity. Its school feeding programs currently focus on Africa, specifically Kenya, Malawi and Zambia, where the need is great. Its work is supported by more than 150 volunteers across Canada who raise awareness and who participate and lead in fundraising campaigns and activities.

“Mary’s Meals is a simple idea that works; by providing a daily meal in a place of education, we create a powerful incentive for hungry children to come to school, giving them the energy to concentrate and learn,” said Sheri McConnell, executive director, Mary’s Meals Canada. “We firmly believe that our school feeding programs help vulnerable children to achieve their potential by improving their ability to participate in and progress through education and, therefore, giving them hope for a brighter future. And we’re inviting Canadians to join us in expanding our global contribution.”

Global needs, and COVID-19
The widespread need for daily meals served in a place of education is exacerbated by many factors. This includes war and civil unrest, natural disasters and extreme weather, prevalence of disease and premature death of parents and caregivers, and, most recently, the global COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the latest United Nations report, Sustainable Development Goals Report 2020, because of COVID-19 and for the first time since 1998, global poverty rates will rise to 8.8 percent, representing an estimated 71 million people who will be pushed into extreme poverty this year.

With 59 million children still out of school and many more chronically hungry, “our work is only just beginning,” said McConnell. “As the pandemic has made life even harder for communities that were already struggling.”

Pandemic response
When the COVID-19 pandemic first struck, in March and April 2020, schools all over the world began to close. Yet Mary’s Meals was able to reach almost all of the children who rely on it through appropriate and safe community food distributions that were devised by its staff, partners and volunteers in conjunction with local governments. They provide take-home rations to be cooked for children at home: which became their new place of learning.

“We questioned how we might be able to continue feeding the vulnerable children who count on our daily meals to help them thrive,” said McConnell. “It was clear that these children were especially vulnerable and at risk.”
The new programs did not happen overnight. There were many obstacles, and the logistics were complex, she said. But with perseverance and an unwavering commitment to feeding the children, plans became reality.

Teams began to distribute food from central points to enable parents to safely collect food to cook for their children at home. Mary’s Meals also provided guidance on social distancing, handwashing and essential hygiene practices so that families could better protect themselves against the spread of the virus. It distributed rations of soap to the majority of the children in its programs to encourage handwashing and good hygiene at home.

“By adapting the programs so quickly and working with communities to deliver these vital supplies, we succeeded in continuing to feed more than 1.6 million children but at home, at a time when vulnerable families most needed that vital support,” said McConnell.

Canadian volunteers take action
To support the COVID-19-altered programs and the even more urgent needs Mary’s Meals Canada swung into high gear. The organization reached out to various volunteer networks to procure additional volunteers to join its movement. As a result, its volunteer base grew by over 50 percent nationwide within a short period of time.

Moreover, enthusiastic young people began reaching out to do good in their communities and neighbourhoods in the launch of a newly created program called “Little Acts of Kindness.” Lawns were cleared, cars were washed, and groceries were purchased and delivered by the volunteers, to list a few gestures of support, while leaving information on the work and mission of Mary’s Meals.

“The philosophy was simple, yet impactful,” said McConnell.

Fine art and quilts have been created and sold online. Masks and cooling scarves were created for vulnerable adults in a long-term care centre with that facility donating to Mary’s Meals. Bottle collections began and continues in parts of Canada as do bake sales and apple cider days, with donations occurring through event Facebook pages or direct via Mary’s Meals website.

Some volunteers have sold their gently used clothing online and donated their earnings. Volunteers also hosted online viewing parties for the “Love Reaches Everywhere” film featuring actor Gerard Butler and Mary’s Meals founder Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow, with discussions held afterwards.

In October 2020 Mary’s Meals Canada launched the “Meaningful Meals” program. It encouraged everyone hosting or eating a Thanksgiving dinner to donate a plate of food at a cost of $26.40 to feed a Mary’s Meals child for a school year. The amount was donated through the Mary’s Meals Canada website.

“These acts and generosities became our fuel to do more, all the while having all of us feeling really great,” said McConnell. “The world was on lockdown and we were out there making people smile, one little act at a time.

2021 plans
Even with the pandemic, Mary’s Meals continues to grow its programs. Mary’s Meals Canada will be looking to expand into India in 2021.

The organization is monitoring the effectiveness and safety of home learning. McConnell said that for many children, the potential for learning at home is limited compared to their school experience. The organization also recognizes the safe environment that school provides.

“We are therefore always keen to restart in-school feeding as quickly as possible, when it is safe to do so, in order to safeguard children from any potentially harmful external influences and situations,” said McConnell. “The need for hungry children to receive a daily meal in their place of education is one that is more evident than ever and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic will continue to present challenges as we strive to support the children and communities we serve.”

In turn, Mary’s Meals Canada has been stepping up, and adapting, its community and donor awareness and volunteer outreach programs.

The organization’s free 90-minute “JOY … To The World” show, curated online, took place Nov. 19 and featured some of Canada’s best singers, dancers and spoken word artists. It was flanked by messages from Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow and Cardinal Thomas Collins of the Toronto, ON archdiocese. The show was followed by the annual and popular “Big Family Christmas” campaign. Also curated online, it runs from November 20 to December 26 (Boxing Day).

Mary’s Meals Canada will be launching the Ambassador Youth Program in 2021, which will be open to students 16 years and older. The organization is aligning the program with schools and churches across the country so that young people will join the movement, create awareness and fundraising events, or become student leaders and work to empowering their fellow students and friends in the art of giving.

“It’s important to Mary’s Meals Canada to empower youth in the utilization of their individual and collective talents,” said McConnell.” They are the future, and our future.”

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