It’s a funny thing, hunger, isn’t it? Not the everyday hunger that most of us feel before mealtimes, but real, gnawing, empty-bellied hunger. It’s like being too hot or too cold or thirsty or absolutely bone-tired; when you’re in the grip of that feeling, it’s the only thing you can focus on. It makes you anxious and irritable. You’re certainly in no mood to tackle a complex problem, or to knock out a piece of work you feel proud of. All you can think about is your growling stomach, and how you can get something – anything – to eat.
But like those other urgent, all-consuming needs, hunger can be relieved almost instantly and with a very simple fix; and once relieved it is immediately forgotten. Our minds do not dwell on hunger unless they are forced to. This, quite literally, is food for thought – food (or the absence of hunger) enables us to think, to learn, to achieve our potential.
And yet today, in 2016, over half a million children in the UK will arrive at school too hungry to learn. Half a million. That’s the same as the entire population of Manchester. And a hungry child cannot concentrate. A hungry child will not absorb information. A hungry child is more likely to be disruptive, or turn up late for school, or not turn up at all.
Many children qualify for free school lunches. But the gap between these meals is a long one, and if there is nothing to eat at home, a child turns up to school in the morning with an empty belly. Hunger speaks louder than any teacher, so these children are missing out on half a day of learning, every day.
The impact of this is huge – not just for the child’s health, but for their future. There is a strong link between eating a healthy breakfast and educational attainment. So, without access to food in the morning, students may not get educated. The most disadvantaged and vulnerable members of our society will become even more disadvantaged and vulnerable. And a huge swathe of the next generation will never even begin to realise their potential. In terms of social mobility, breakfast (or lack of it) can literally be life-changing.
This is shocking. It sounds like a sort of dystopian nightmare – half a million people trapped in a cycle of poverty and denied the opportunities and the basic human rights that others freely enjoy.
But this is no nightmare. It is happening right here, right now, in London, and all over the UK.
In 2015 we came across Magic Breakfast, a charity aiming to end hunger as a barrier to education by providing nutritious breakfasts to its partner schools. Thanks to their amazing work, over 23,500 children start their school day with a healthy ‘magic’ breakfast, enabling them to attend class with full bellies and enquiring minds.
Magic Breakfast support as many schools as they can, but have almost 300 schools on their waiting list. The cost of each simple, healthy breakfast – bagels, cereals, porridge, juice – is relatively small. An annual investment of just £13m would solve the problem entirely – and make a world of difference to these children’s futures.
So – we decided to do something about it. Last year, for the month of Ramadan, we decided to donate a ‘magic’ breakfast for every guest who dined with us. (We also donated a second meal by way of Indian charity Akshaya Patra.)
We were inspired by the partnerships we’d established and felt compelled to do more. So, for each and every breakfast you eat at Dishoom, we now donate a ‘magic’ breakfast to a school in London. And we will continue to do this. A meal for a meal. Simple. As of the end of March 2016 – we’d donated 154,934 ‘magic’ breakfasts to fuel children’s learning.
(We don’t add this cost to your bill or ask you to make a donation in our cafés. We support Magic Breakfast for every breakfast we serve because we believe their work is important and urgent.)
IT HAS BEEN an annual December habit of mine, these past ten years since we embarked upon this restaurant business, to sit alone, with myself, and reflect on the year gone by. I am grateful to be here in the Permit Room in our restaurant in Shoreditch scribbling and writing, the oddly enjoyable taste of splintering wood from my chewed up pencil smoothed by my decently strong drink.
These are the last few days, the dregs of 2019. It’s my habit to sit here in the Permit Room at this time. I am the be-stubbled and dishevelled regular, cherishing his precious drink at the end of the bar. Weary, I sit here pondering the year, attempting to figure out what it was trying to teach me. What wisdom can I glean from it?
I love to truly understand and appreciate the origins of a dish, and learn how communities have adapted a recipe over time to make that dish unique to them.
We have arrived at a very sad, but inevitable and clear choice. As of now, all Dishooms are now closed to diners.