Assessing Mary’s Meals’ impact in Malawi

In part one of this blog, Gillian McMahon, our head of programmes: policy, research and funding, shares news of our exciting new research which demonstrates the impact of our life-changing work.

Read part two: How Mary's Meals is helping families invest in their own future

Back to all stories | Posted on 03/06/16 in Blog

We have always known that our work has an impact. Providing a meal at school so that hungry children can concentrate and learn is a simple concept which makes sense in any context, and I have regularly heard of the positive changes brought about by our programmes from the many children and communities I have been fortunate to meet in various countries over my six years of working for Mary’s Meals.

Mary’s Meals carries out routine monitoring of all of our programmes as standard and through this we’ve seen marked increases in indicators such as enrolment and attendance in schools where Mary’s Meals are being served. This monitoring is essential in allowing us to ensure that we are consistently delivering our programmes effectively and to the highest possible standard. However, we also wanted to be able to look beyond these numbers to assess the more complex, yet equally important changes which our programmes can bring about. In 2014 we therefore introduced a new monitoring, evaluation and learning strategy and embarked upon a five-year impact assessment in Malawi, where Mary’s Meals has its largest school feeding programme. 

Mary’s Meals’ staff conducted focus groups with children, volunteers and teachers and carried out surveys comparing results across two groups; one which was about to begin receiving Mary’s Meals immediately and one which would begin receiving Mary’s Meals after around a year. In the first year alone, over 150,000 individual question responses were collated from 1,669 different people, demonstrating change across a broad range of indicators.

These indicators were selected based on a combination of international standards for monitoring the impact of school feeding programmes as well as our well-developed understanding of the difference that Mary’s Meals makes. We chose, for example, to look at attendance and drop-out from school as standard markers of the impact of school feeding. However, we also chose to research less common topics related to happiness and wellbeing, as my experience – and that of colleagues working for Mary’s Meals worldwide – is that the first thing everybody, from children and teachers to parents and village elders, tells you anecdotally, is how much happier they and the children now are.

This work – which is currently also underway in Zambia and beginning in Liberia – was designed, project-managed and delivered by Mary’s Meals and independently verified throughout by the International NGO Training and Research Centre (INTRAC). INTRAC’s scrutiny was essential in ensuring that our work was objective and credible and we really enjoyed working with them.

We have been delighted with the results from the first year, which clearly show the introduction of the feeding programme has had an impact in a range of areas:

•    More children are choosing to enrol in school.
•    Children attend class more often.
•    Classroom hunger is decreased.
•    Absences and drop-outs from school are decreased. 
•    Concentration and the attention span of the children in the classrooms is increased.
•    As a direct result of receiving Mary’s Meals, there are more children saying they are happy in school.

Mary’s Meals’ founder Magnus frequently says, ‘It’s not about the big numbers, it’s about each child’. Yet our research shows that the impact of our work is important for a big number of individual children. Their personal experiences may vary but their feedback is consistent – having Mary’s Meals at school makes a difference to their lives.

Working on this research and the report was a massive team effort, with a lot of logistical challenges, yet it was also extremely rewarding. The thing I found most challenging though, was trying to convey the feeling when a proud mother and aunt look you in the eye and tell you how much a simple daily meal at school affects her child and family, how important it is to them, how much they rely on it. This report tries to quantify this feeling, sharing the experiences of teachers, children and their families – I hope it manages to do so.
Download the full Mary’s Meals Malawi Impact Assessment: Year One report below. And look out for part two of this blog, in which Gillian will introduce us to one of the families she met as part of her impact assessment work with Mary’s Meals.

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