All the donations that poured in filled a shed on the grounds of a B&B-turned retreat center that his family ran. “And about three weeks later we found ourselves driving across Europe in this old Land Rover delivering the goods to that camp,” he said.
He was moved by people’s generosity, but thought that after taking a week off from work for the trip he could go back to working at a salmon farm in the Scottish Highlands.
“But when I got home I discovered that God had a completely different plan because the shed was literally filled to the roof,” he said, “and people were turning up at our door with carloads of gifts. And I prayed about it and decided to give up my job, and I sold my house, and somebody gave me a truck. And I said to God, ‘I’ll keep doing this as long as there’s a need and as long as people keep giving.’”
The need never went away, and people kept giving. So for 10 years he and his friends drove trucks back and forth to the former Yugoslavia, and began finding needs in other places where they could help out, including Romania and Liberia. The group called itself Scottish International Relief.
In 2002, the organization began working in the southern African country of Malawi. MacFarlane-Barrow one morning accompanied a local priest to visit the sick in his parish, including a woman whose husband had just died and who herself was dying.
“When we went in, the mother was lying on the bare floor and was surrounded by her six children. She said to us, ‘There’s nothing left for me now except to pray that someone will look after my children when I’m gone.’ And I started talking to her oldest child, Edward, who was 14. At one point in our conversation I asked him, ‘Edward, what’s your ambition?’ He looked at me and said, ‘I’d like to have enough food to eat and I’d like to be able to go to school one day.’ And that was the extent of his ambition at 14 years of age.”
MacFarlane-Barrow was stunned, but it was not the first time he’d met children who are out of school because of hunger and poverty — “kids who were working or begging or doing stuff they needed to do to put food on the table.”
“But I had never really thought before of that link between hunger and kids being out of school,” he said. “And it was really that encounter that prompted us to start this new mission, which is all about providing a daily meal along with education, a mission that we decided in that very particular way belonged to our Blessed Mother. We gave it to her and asked her to show us how to do it.”
Thus was born Mary’s Meals. Its headquarters is not in some office building in a metropolitan city. By design, MacFarlane-Barrow continues to run the network from the very shed where Scottish International Relief was born, where neighbors dropped off donations for the suffering in Bosnia. It is very much a partnership among several groups of people: those in need; their families and communities; the local economy, and those abroad who have the urge to help others.
“At the beginning we had a conviction that it had to be owned by the local community and not by us charging in from outside with a good idea,” MacFarlane-Barrow said. “So the first thing we did was have community meetings in the villages and we said to the people who came, ‘Look, we have this idea to provide meals for the children in schools, but we’ll only do it if you believe in it and you want to volunteer your time to organize the cooking and all the daily work required.’ And immediately, they said, ‘This is what we want for our children,’ and they began organizing.
“The second thing, which is a principle that lasts to this day, was about the food, that as much as possible we want to source the food locally, to support the local farmer and the local economy,” he continued.
Of course, in these days of pandemic, it’s often not possible to feed children in school, as many schools have shuttered to help reduce the spread of COVID-19. As the pandemic began to close schools, teams in the countries where Mary’s Meals is present began talking with the community leaders and public health officials. They “very quickly came up with a plan to provide the food at home for the children,” MacFarlane-Barrow explained. “Obviously, you can suspend school for good reasons, but you can’t stop feeding children, especially given that for many of these children our meal is the only proper meal that they receive in a day.”
So, in many cases, at an appointed time, parents go to the school to pick up food and bring it home to cook for their children.