In 2013, Lucky Peach helped organize our MAD symposium under the theme of “GUTS”. The topics discussed during that two-day event—and later published in a Lucky Peach booklet called GUTS are still as relevant as ever. Every Wednesday until the GUTS run out, we’ll be publishing a feature from the collection. This week, we’re sharing Martha Payne’s inspirational story.
When I wrote my talk for MAD I knew the symposium was about Guts. I know lots of people think I am brave because of my blog, but I found out that I wasn’t brave enough to tell everyone about being brave. It was like I had forgotten how to read. I lost my voice and Dad had to read my speech for me.
I think people forget that when I had to be brave with my blog, it was because I was really scared. I tell people about when my head teacher told me I was banned from school. People expect children to cry. But I didn’t cry, not at first. When my head teacher started to tell me, I felt myself go red. The blood in my ears pumped so loudly that I couldn’t hear what she was saying. I think I may have held my breath. When I didn’t answer, she told me again and I heard. I must have made a funny noise when I started breathing again because she put her arm around me and told me it wasn’t my fault. It didn’t make me feel better. You get told at school if you are getting bullied you should tell a teacher. Who do you tell when it’s the people in charge who are bullying you? It was difficult to walk back to my class. I think everyone was staring at me. It was the longest walk I have done at school. I think a really brave person would have shouted at everyone that they were wrong. Would have shouted that it’s unfair and shouted that I would fight them. I didn’t because I was too scared.
When I got home, I wrote my goodbye post for my blog. I told everyone what had happened and how I wouldn’t be able to help Mary’s Meals any more. Next, Dad’s phone started beeping and I don’t remember it stopping again for weeks. Every beep was an email because someone had left a comment on my blog or made a donation. I started to feel less scared and more brave. People weren’t going to let me be bullied or let me stop helping Mary’s Meals. Everyone was doing a little bit to help and when you added it all up it was massive. It was brilliant.
I went to Malawi to meet the kids everyone was helping. I shared on my blog all about the 14,000 children who were getting a school lunch because we all had given a little. I put pictures of me painting the Friends of NeverSeconds kitchen sign, and I tried to tell everyone that the children I met were just like me. Not because we are the same age and like the same games but because I know what it’s like to be scared. Kids wake up scared in Malawi every day. Scared they won’t eat and scared someone they love will die. Every mug of porridge the kids get helps them grow and helps them study at school but it also tells them that people they don’t know care about them. The porridge makes their world less scary one meal at a time. Food sometimes is hope.
My dad was my voice in Copenhagen but I will be the voice of the children in Malawi. I may not be brave but I will be less scared and that’s what I think Guts was about. It was about making the world less scary with food.
This is the talk that Dad and I gave in Copenhagen.
Martha: Hello! My name is Martha. I’m ten years old and from Lochgilphead in Argyll on the west coast of Scotland. I live on a smallholding with my family. A smallholding is like a tiny farm and we try and grow enough to eat ourselves with some extra to share. It’s fun growing up with animals and plants. The sheep come running when they see me. They try to knock me over and the hens peck my boots. When my friends visit they love to eat apples from the trees and pick fruit in the polytunnel. Dad sometimes has deer hanging in the garage and I go to the slaughterhouse with my lambs. I’m not an expert on food but I do like living with my food!
Dave: One day last year Martha came home from school really excited. Her teacher had asked her to write like a journalist and she’d written about the sinking of the Titanic and loved it. Over supper that evening between mouthfuls, Martha declared—
Martha: I WANT TO WRITE EVERY DAY LIKE A JOURNALIST.
Dave: I did that whole dad-panic thing that you do when one of your kids suggests something educational. You want to encourage them but not be so keen that you put them off, and so I suggested she write a blog. I think I might even have described a blog as “cool.”
Martha: I didn’t know what a blog was at first. They looked like a cross between a paper with only one writer and a diary. The best one’s had pictures and ratings and so I decided to copy them and I had the perfect subject I wanted to write about: my school dinners.
Dave: So I contacted the school and asked permission, and being the great school it is, the answer came back quickly from the headmistress. It was yes. I thought it was a brilliant subject. Writing every day was going to be a real challenge, but between her school dinners and the food we produce I thought there would always be something to say. That evening Martha and I sat with the laptop firmly on her knee and set up the blog. Because of her age she used my email account and we just followed the instructions.
Martha: I wanted to call it More Please after Oliver Twist but someone had already taken it. We aren’t allowed back for a second helping at school so instead I called my blog NeverSeconds. We also had to give it a description, then write something about the author. I hid my name and decided to be VEG to help keep me safe online. I think my favorite categories I thought of were “mouthfuls” and “pieces of hair.” I found a hair once in my salad and I thought it would make people smile. I remember feeling like a proper journalist when I finished because the button you click to send it to the Internet is the publish button.
Dave: We were busy lambing so I completely forgot about her blog. Being a small-scale farmer in Scotland doesn’t stop me from being one of the proudest. Scotland has amazing produce. From the school kitchen you can see sheep and deer on the hills. In the bay beyond the school fishing boats use pots for lobster and prawns. Salmon spawn in the hills behind the house. You get the picture. Scotland has great food and we are lucky that it’s right on our doorstep. Then Martha showed me her first dinner photo.
Martha: I wrote, “I need to concentrate all afternoon and I can’t do it on 1 croquette. Do any of you think you could?” I was being honest not mean. I know some people think I was being mean but I think it’s because my photo embarrassed a lot of adults.
Dave: I tweeted about Martha’s blog to my two hundred followers at four pm. By eight pm ten thousand people had read the blog and were tweeting about it. By the next morning there were twenty-five thousand hits and I found myself writing a letter to Martha’s teacher. Whilst Martha was at school that day, Twitter direct messages started to pour in. The papers were trying to get hold of us. It was scary how quickly it happened.
Martha: It was really hard. Everyone wanted to speak to me, so we decided to do one interview for the radio. I was asked about my lunches. And then a lady from school council came on and told the whole country it was my fault and that really upset me. Journalists went to the school for lunch and the kitchen changed everything for them but it only lasted one day. It didn’t feel fair at all. What kept me going were the children from around the world who sent me their dinner photos. I have seen food from Israel, from Finland, China, America, Brazil, and loads more. One girl called Annie sent me a picture of her lunch from Taiwan and she appeared on their six o’clock news because I put it on my blog! I don’t think the council realized I had made so many friendships across the world.
Dave: School dining halls are so often at the heart of a school and I feel it’s an opportunity to teach the next generation about food and healthy eating. Lunchtime shouldn’t be just about refueling. Lunchtime should take its place as one of the most important lessons every day. Schools can instill good eating habits that last a lifetime. Studies show time and time again that if decent school lunches are served then pupils’ results improve. Teachers comment that well-fed kids behave better in class. In Scotland we are facing the growing cost of treating weight-related diseases and we should not be squandering chances to tackle the problem.
Martha: Someone commented on my blog that I was “lucky to get a meal at all.” And they were right. I have helped my grandpa raise money for a charity called Mary’s Meals for years. They provide free school dinners in a place of education in sixteen of the poorest countries around the world. Children can go to school instead of working or looking for food. Because of a school meal they get an education. My blog was getting fifty thousand hits a day so I started a JustGiving page and managed to raise £2,000. It was brilliant, enough to feed more than three hundred kids like me for a whole year.
Dave: Things were dying down by now. A month after her first blog, encouraged by chefs like René Redzepi, Nick Nairn, Jamie Oliver, and Raymond Blanc, Martha was still photographing, still writing, and still scoring. Her school meals were improving. Salad was available to help yourself to, there was fruit for everyone. On June 14 she gave her meal a 10 out of 10.
Martha: The next day my headmistress took me into her office. She told me I wasn’t allowed to blog anymore and showed me a photograph in a paper. There was a photo of me cooking at a food event with Nick Nairn and there were flames coming out of the pan. Above that photo it read, “Time to fire the dinner ladies.” It wasn’t my fault. I was very upset and everyone in school knew I was banned and some weren’t very kind.
Dave: I phoned the council after school. I remember apologizing, saying I wasn’t sure “but I think it may blow up again.” In return I was phoned by the -director of education. He spoke of unwarranted attacks, made me feel bullied, and laughed when I spoke. It was the rudest phone call I have ever received and whilst he was shouting and laughing at me, Martha was writing. Quietly at the table she wrote her farewell post on NeverSeconds—a post that has been viewed now over two million times.
Martha: I wrote—
This morning in maths I got taken out of class by my head teacher and taken to her office. I was told that I could not take any more photos of my school dinners because of a headline in a newspaper today.
I only write my blog, not newspapers, and I am sad I am no longer allowed to take photos. I will miss sharing and rating my school dinners and I’ll miss seeing the dinners you send me too. I don’t think I will be able to finish raising enough money for a kitchen for Mary’s Meals either.
Dave: The reaction was -immediate. In the next twenty-four hours we rec—eived eleven thousand e-mails and at one point we got more than a thousand an hour. Twitter lit up and -Martha Payne, NeverSeconds, and Mary’s Meals trended across the globe. Newspapers, TV, and radio blocked the hospital switchboard in an attempt to contact Martha’s mum at work. Martha’s friends and supporters rose as one and backed her. By one o’clock the decision was reversed live on the BBC and the news spread around the world of the nine-year-old girl blogger who had defeated the council with her words.
Martha: Whilst Mum and Dad answered the phone I looked at my JustGiving page. People weren’t just supporting me they were supporting my favorite charity, Mary’s Meals. Every time I hit the refresh button the total had climbed! I was aiming for £7,000 to build a kitchen in Malawi but it went through that and didn’t stop. By the end of the day we’d raised £35,000. A week later it was £100,000 and now it’s £130,000 pounds. When Mary’s Meals asked me what the sign should read on the kitchen we raised the money to build, I said, Friends of NeverSeconds.
Dave: When Martha’s school term ended, other schools guest-blogged. NeverSeconds crisscrossed the globe taking in Scotland, Wales, South Korea, Australia, Finland, Canada, America, and finally back to Martha. Not in Scotland but in Malawi. Martha had faced bad food, bullying, and bans. Visiting Malawi brought balance to the experience and so we paid our own fares out and were joined by a BBC documentary team.
Martha: Being a kid in Malawi is tough. Kids there just don’t have beds, they don’t have toys, they don’t have electricity or water, and most of all they don’t have food. The markets sell everything in one-meal portions, one spoon of oil, one egg. Beans are sold one by one. Families have to grow food to survive and kids must work to help.
Dave: A school meal in Malawi is a life-changer. Kids don’t have to spend their days struggling to find food. They go to school knowing they will get a mug of likuni phala, a porridge made from maize and soya enriched with sugar and vitamins. Mary’s Meals buys the ingredients in Malawi. A Malawian company mills and delivers the sacks to kitchens where volunteers, the kids’ mums, start before dawn heating water on special efficient stoves.
Martha: Every morning you see kids walking to school with their mugs for their porridge. They waved them to me and shouted because they saw my Mary’s Meals T-shirt. When I got to Lirangwe where our kitchen is, the whole school lined up and sang as we arrived. It was a wall of sound, a thank you for a new kitchen, and the promise of a meal every day.
Dave: The head teacher took us into her office and on the wall was pinned a thick wad of papers. Sheet after sheet of tightly written rows:
date, name, age
date, name, age
date, name, age
It was the school death record. Each line a child lost. These are tragedies that Mary’s Meals is working to prevent with a nourishing school meal that now reaches 755,000 children every day. Kids are growing up stronger, brighter, and with an education that helps break the cycle of poverty.
Martha: I don’t eat my school lunch without thinking of the 2,000 children in Lirangwe eating theirs. They sit outside and the whole school goes quiet as they eat. There’s just the soft sound of porridge-eating. Watching children share a mug so they can take the other home for their family is heartbreaking. You can see just how much of a difference food makes. Once every last mouthful has been eaten it’s like a switch has been thrown. BANG! There’s energy again! There’s football, there’s skipping, there’s energy to learn. It’s brilliant. It’s changing the world one school meal at a time!
Dave: Somehow NeverSeconds got kids talking about their food in a different way. It started a community of children using the Internet to share with those that have less. Please join in! Just £10.70 ($17.30) feeds a child for a year. NeverSeconds is feeding fourteen thousand children this year. Find Martha on JustGiving and help us to stop adding names to that list in the head teacher’s office. Our book, NeverSeconds: The Incredible Story of Martha Payne, is out now and raises money for Mary’s Meals.
Martha: I’ve met loads of amazing people because of my blog, and when they say to me I’ve been brave, I say only a little bit. I tell them they should meet the kids in Malawi because they are this brave every single day.