By Ken McMeikan
In Business I’ve always believed that as a company becomes more successful it has a disproportionate responsibility to help those who are most disadvantaged within the community from where their success has come.
More than a decade ago I became aware of the full extent of child poverty in the UK with children arriving at schools in the morning for their studies literally starving. It’s hard to imagine how children can be expected to attain the level of education that they will inevitably need in order for them to successfully secure employment, and lift themselves out of the poverty trap they find themselves in, when they are struggling to concentrate on their studies because of hunger.
Back then, I was Chief Executive of Greggs the Bakers and I saw first-hand the benefits of setting up free breakfast clubs to try and tackle the issue. However, no single business can address the scale of this problem on their own and it was vital to set the ambition to scale up Breakfast Clubs by partnering with other like-minded companies, and business leaders, who had both the compassion and vision to get actively involved.
The goal I set back then was to get from 125 existing Greggs Breakfast Clubs to 500 across the UK feeding thousands of children as quickly as we possibly could. When I became the CEO of Brakes in 2013 (one of the UKs largest food service providers) I wanted to continue rolling out breakfast clubs and Brakes became a Breakfast Club partner with Greggs.
However, in 2014 I first became aware of an even greater issue affecting children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds – Holiday Hunger!
I’d never heard of holiday hunger before and I’m ashamed to say I actually hadn’t been aware of it even though it was happening right under our noses in the very communities I thought we were already helping.
Holiday Hunger is so obvious and yet largely unrecognised in our wealthy country. Schools are closed for almost a third of the year and therefore free school meals and school breakfast clubs are not providing food, leaving a huge vacuum with children again going hungry.
Equally, due to financial hardship at home they don’t have access to the sort of activities that other children enjoy during the school holiday period.
In 2015, with the support of 20 pioneering Brakes suppliers, we set about trying to create a “movement” to fill this void during school holidays and provide free food but also activities to stimulate the children from an educational perspective whilst also creating a fun and enjoyable environment.
After 18 months we had grown to 40 amazing companies and were running more than 150 “Meals and More” clubs across the UK providing food and activities to thousands of children – creating a powerful movement to tackle child poverty, holiday hunger and improve educational attainment. However because of the scale of the need there is still a long way to go until we can provide the level of support required for the millions of children who suffer in dignified but unacceptable silence.
Children at Highfields Playground holiday club in Leicester supported by Brakes Meals and More programme.
This movement is growing and more businesses, leaders, 3rd sector organisations and charities are coming together to do something really positive. It’s humbling and exhilarating to be part of a movement that makes such a wonderful difference to children’s lives.
However, businesses and third sector organisations cannot do this alone. Government and political leaders need to take an active and decisive role in recognising the totally unacceptable level of hunger during school holiday periods and compel local authority leaders to provide one of the basic necessities of human life for these disadvantaged children – food!
Frank Field MP and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hunger have looked extensively into this problem and I am delighted that a Private Members Bill has been put forward by Frank Field which already has support from over 130 of the 650 Members of Parliament.
To try and gain support from more MPs I have written personally to over 2000 business leaders, and charity leaders, that I am connected with. I have asked for their support in writing to their local MP to encourage them to be in Parliament on the 19th of January 2018 to vote for the Bill in its second reading.
I’ve been astounded and humbled at the response. Business leaders are shocked at the scale of the problem and recognise the need to do something scaleable and sustainable as quickly as we can.
Something that many have written back to me about and commented on is that as parents or grandparents, aunts or uncles, we simply wouldn’t want our own children to go hungry and if there is something positive to stop this from happening in the U.K. (which is the 5th/6th wealthiest country in the world) we need to do it!
So why should businesses get involved? Well it’s simple:
1. The children are a key part of the community from which businesses look to grow successfully so there is enlightened self-interest in ensuring the local community is healthy and successful
2. As businesses we need the best educated workforce we can have and need to measure our success in this to compete on a global scale – our children today will need to measure up against the best from China, USA, India etc especially as technology grows in influence on consumers everyday lives.
3. If children can start the day with a full stomach there is a greater chance they can then concentrate on their studies and get a better education
4. During school holidays if children are no longer going hungry they can continue their development and growth and come back to their studies after the school holidays in good shape ready to recommence their education.
Ken McMeikan was CEO of Brakes from 2013 to 2017, and has previously held senior positions at Greggs, Sainsburys, Tescos and Europa Foods.