The Scottish tin shed that feeds a million each day

Its HQ is a tin shack in Argyll, yet from here Mary’s Meals feeds a million children a day in the world’s poorest countries. 

Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow explains how Mary’s Meals came to be.

How did you get involved in charity work overseas?

In 1992 my brother and I decided to try to help the people of Bosnia during the Balkan confl ict by launching a little appeal in our local area and driving out aid to a refugee camp there. When we got back, we were amazed to find an avalanche of donations had been delivered to our home. I gave up my job, sold my house and started driving a truck back and forth to Bosnia. I certainly didn’t expect it to become my life’s work, but that’s really how it began. I did that for ten years, working in a variety of different places – Romania, Latin America, West Africa. We were going where we were invited to help people in desperate need. Then, in 2002, the work of Mary’s Meals was born.

How does it feel to be feeding a million children around the world?

It’s too big a number for me to get my wee brain around. Generally at Mary’s Meals, we’re not really driven by numbers, but clearly that landmark is one that needs to be celebrated. I suppose more than anything, I feel it’s only the beginning, because of the number of children who are still waiting. For me, it shouts louder than ever that there’s no reason why other children in the world shouldn’t have a meal at school.

What’s next for Mary’s Meals?

Ultimately, our desire is that one day we’re redundant at this end, that governments can provide meals for children in schools in their own countries. But we don’t pretend that’s a likelihood in the short term. Our work is sustained by this enormous and growing grassroots movement around the world, which consists of many people making small donations, and the growth in that movement has never let up over all these years. Many organisations rely on grants that only last for three or fi ve years and then drop off, and because of that they have to think in cycles of that length of time, whereas we are able to think longer-term.

What motivates you?

Our vision, that every child in the world can have a meal in school, burns more brightly than ever now it’s clear that it’s possible. We’re not silly; we don’t think it’s a job for Mary’s Meals alone. We hope that what we’re doing encourages others to replicate it, but at the same time our focus is the next school on our waiting list, the next child that’s waiting for Mary’s Meals. That’s what drives us on.

Will you keep your base in Dalmally?

Absolutely! In some ways, it’s a daft thing to stay here in this place, with all the travel that’s involved – up and down to airports and so on. I’m sure many organisations would migrate to London or New York at this stage, but for me it’s really important that we stay rooted here in Scotland and particularly in the shed. We do things a little bit differently, but it seems to work for us. Scotland is where it all began in terms of the outpouring of support, and to this day a huge part of our support is in Scotland. I’ve always been proud of my country but the work of Mary’s Meals has made me even more proud and I hope Scottish people are proud of Mary’s Meals too.

What is it like to be one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people?

It feels bizarre. It involved a fancy do in New York, which isn’t really my thing, but it has helped us reach a new audience, so that’s all good. A while ago I was presented with an award by the actor Gerard Butler. Things like that feel strange but are helpful for Mary’s Meals. The level of interest and the opportunities to tell people about our work has been unprecedented, although that’s also why it is so important we stay here, rooted in this shed. It keeps our feet on the ground.

The Shed That Fed a Million Children, by Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow (William Collins, £12.99) is out now.

Find out more at

(This feature was originally published in 2015)