How are ordinary  people changing the systems that have trapped them? The members of the International Commission to Promote Systemic Change offer a new series of stories illustrating lived insights from around the world. Simple ideas that work.

In the first of these stories Robert Maloney CM tells the story of “Mary’s Meals” …”a simple idea that works by providing a daily meal in a place of education, chronically poor children are attracted to the classroom where they can gain a basic education that provides an escape route from poverty.” ”

It is a simple idea that began locally and has now become an international movement.”

Mary’s Meals website at:

Other stories to come concern

  • women who entered a process of educating themselves and  working for a world without violence
  • lepers who found a way to build a sustainable model village for themselves and their families
  • a heroic vice-mayor  in Brazil trying to create a “city fit for children.”

We will share these stories and others over the next few months and  invite your stories and your comments.

Thank you.

The Members of the Commission

Mary’s Meals – Robert Maloney CM

First, let me say a word about the founder, since his story may be encouraging to adventurous young people who are interested in systemic change.  Then I will say a word about this enormously successful project.

The founder

Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow, was born in the Scottish Highlands on February 7, 1968 and was brought up in Dalmally, Scotland.  His parents ran a Highland hunting lodge during the season and much of Magnus’ childhood was spent walking across the Highlands, deer stalking, and salmon fishing.  He attended Oban High School as he was growing up and began to study history at the university but left to become a salmon farmer.  He played shinty (a popular national sport) for Scotland’s international team.

In 1983 a visit to Medjugorje reawakened the MacFarlane-Barrow family’s faith as Catholics, and Magnus’ parents felt that God was calling them to convert their lodge into a Family House of Prayer.  To this day people from many parts of the world come to stay in Craig Lodge Community.  I was privileged to visit there myself last year.

Scottish International Relief (SIR) began in 1992, when Magnus took a ‘gap year’, to deliver aid in the Balkans during the conflict there.  He and his brother Fergus organized a local appeal for blankets and food. They filled a Land Rover with aid and delivered their cargo to Medjugorje in Bosnia. They expected to resume work as salmon farmers eventually, but in their absence their parents’ shed continued to fill up with more donations.  Magnus has never gone back to his old job. The donations didn’t stop.

In 2002, Magnus visited Malawi with Gay Russell, a woman from Malawi who was a key figure in famine relief, and Tony Smith, a UK businessman.  The first school feeding project soon began there.  Mary’s Meals, funded and administered by Scottish International Relief, was born in a small cluster of primary schools in Blantyre, Malawi.

Eventually, the charity officially changed its name from Scottish International Relief (SIR) to Mary’s Meals, to reflect the fact that school feeding, which started as only one element of the organization’s work in 2002, had now become its main focus.

It is still from Craig Lodge that Magnus directs Mary’s Meals.  He lives very simply there with his wife Julie and their 7 children.  As founder and CEO of Mary’s Meals, his vision and ideas continue to inspire and direct the work.

The original shed in Dalmally, which used to store aid during the Balkan conflict, is now Magnus’s office.

He and his work have received several prestigious awards, including:

  • Outstanding Young Person of the World 2005, awarded by Junior Chamber International
  • Unsung Hero 2006, awarded by the Sunday Mail
  • CNN Hero 2010
  • The Paul Harris Award, given to him on two occasions by the Rotary Club
  • Order of the British Empire (OBE), on the 2011 New Year’s Honours List

The genesis of Mary’s Meals in Malawi

On his visit to Malawi in 2002, Magnus met a boy and his mother.  Their plight changed the main focus of his work.

Lying on the floor of her hut, the boy’s mother, surrounded by her six children, was dying of AIDS.  Magnus asked the oldest son what he hoped for in life, and he said: “to have enough to eat and to go to school one day.” The request struck a chord and led to the evolution of SIR into Mary’s Meals as it exists today.

It is now an international movement for setting up school feeding projects in communities where poverty and hunger prevent children from gaining an education. From its first feeding operation of 200 children in Malawi, Mary’s Meals has grown to a world-wide campaign, providing free school meals in hundreds of schools and feeding over 734,000 children daily, at an average cost of only $16.80 per child a year!  It offers daily meals to school children in 16 countries, including Malawi, Liberia, Kenya, India and Haiti.

Why is Mary’s Meals a systemic change project? 

Experience has taught that feeding programs help guarantee the presence and perseverance of impoverished students in school.  Magnus puts it succinctly in this way: “Mary’s Meals is a simple idea that works – by providing a daily meal in a place of education, chronically poor children are attracted to the classroom where they can gain a basic education that provides an escape route from poverty.”

The project is hugely successful and there has been a notable increase in school attendance and in average grades in the schools where feeding programs have been initiated.

Mary’s Meals Malawi is by far the biggest project that has been launched.  The feeding program there reaches over 500,000 children.  It also has the lowest running cost of any of the countries, because of good links with local farmers and an “army” of volunteers.   It costs just £7.00 ($11.10) for Mary’s Meals in Malawi to provide a school child with a daily hot meal for a whole year.

When establishing a school feeding project, Mary’s Meals tries to work closely with local communities.  Everyone – tribal chiefs, teachers, parents, church leaders – is involved in the process. Usually land is donated in order to build a kitchen adjacent to the school. Teachers and parents organize a pool of volunteers who will take their turn cooking and serving the meals.

For further information, one might consult the Mary’s Meals website at:

Grassroots Films has just produced a very informative DVD film about Mary’s Meals entitled “Child 31,” which is a candidate for various awards.

More on Mary’s Meals

What you can do


Robert P. Maloney, C.M.

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