During the early 90s, I spent many weekends volunteering to collect food at supermarkets – inviting customers to place a donated food item in our trolley so that we could drive them to the refugee camps in the former Yugoslavia. The war there was at its height and the idea of people in Europe needing help with something as basic as food had scandalised many of us.
And so, our new charity was born and eventually evolved into Mary’s Meals, an international movement that sets up school feeding projects run by local volunteers – over 85,000 of them in Malawi alone, where more than a million children benefit from our programme.
A few weeks back (seems much longer than that now), I again found myself in a supermarket, this time to do the weekly shopping for my family. The empty shelves scared me in a way I really hadn’t expected. I had seen images on social media and heard suggestions that “panic buying” had begun, but here I was, looking at the place where the pasta had always been and seeing only a pile of ripped up cardboard.
I thought of my kids waiting for me to return from work as usual with the weekly shopping. For the first time ever as a parent, I felt a little surge of fear at the thought of not being able to provide food for my own kids.
When I did finally return home later that evening with more rice and potatoes than usual (there were plenty of those and almost everything else I could have wanted to buy in the supermarket) I found my children in a state of concern – not about the lack of pasta but about the fact that their school was closing.
For someone who had spent most of their adult life advocating for children who missed school because of hunger without ever having any personal experience of such horrors, this had been a profoundly challenging day.
Since then, all our lives have changed. And while the pressure on supermarket supply chains seems to be easing, the pressure on many families certainly is not. All over the country, many parents are engaged in a previously unthinkable struggle to feed their children. We are shocked today not by hunger at the other side of Europe but right here, gnawing at stomachs in our own streets.
Our little effort to help the people of the former Yugoslavia in the 90s grew into a global movement only because of the goodness of people. We never planned anything beyond that little homespun initiative – it evolved into something else only because people of goodwill can never tolerate the idea of another’s hunger.
Good people (and they are the vast majority of people) will perform even extraordinary acts of charity to ensure that their neighbour can eat – whether that neighbour is the elderly person self-isolating next door or the child in Africa whose growth is being permanently stunted by chronic malnutrition. And in the face of the new need that we see in the UK today, an enormous outpouring of wonderful charity is taking place.
Even today ours is still a world of plenty. Many of us are still blessed with more than we need. There is enough food for everyone – there always has been. It just needs to be made available to everyone at the right time in the right place. We are all – every one of us – engaged in a new fight to ensure that happens for every child in this world.
Let’s share our food or money with the foodbank, let’s volunteer our time to deliver food – let’s do whatever we can to make sure no child in the UK ever faces a day without enough food. And while we do so, and as things get better, let’s never forget our brothers and sisters in the world’s poorest nations whose children die each day in their thousands of hunger-related causes, in this plentiful planet of ours.
Magnus Macfarlane-Barrow is chief executive and founder of the Mary’s Meals charity, which provides food for the world’s poorest children. His new book Give: Charity and the Art of Living Generously will be published by William Collins in September. For more information, follow him on instagram @magnusmacfarlane-barrow