Louisa Blake, founder of social initiative Looby Lou’s Lovely Lunches, and an alumna of Birkenhead High School Academy, is the winner of the GDST Alumna of the Year award.
Long before Marcus Rashford began campaigning for the government to extend the free school meals provision into the school holidays during the first national lockdown last year, primary school Assistant Headmistress Louisa Blake established Looby Lou’s Lovely Lunches to provide a packed lunch to children during the holidays.
She explains, “Working in schools all over the Wirral I saw that over the holidays, some children change because they lose their stability, their place of safety, their place of warmth and where they know that they are going to get a hot meal every day. The government provide free school meals for families in difficulty throughout term time but when it comes to the holidays they don’t provide anything. I wanted to make sure that children get a least one proper meal made for them every day.”
“I wanted to make sure that children get at least one proper meal made for them every day.”
Free school meals have been at least partially funded by the government for more than a century, because of concerns about malnourishment and children being too hungry to concentrate during lessons. Children of all ages—from nursery to sixth form—may be eligible if they live in a household that receives income-based benefits. In England, about 1.4 million children claimed for free school meals in January 2020—17.3% of state-educated pupils.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many families lost their main source of income overnight, with redundancies, reduced hours and contracts not renewed. Analysis by the Food Foundation estimates a further 900,000 children in England may have sought free school meals since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Louisa has firsthand experience of needing to accept support to put food on the table and saw the parents of the children in her classroom experiencing the same struggle.
She says, “When I was a young child, my parents separated and that left us in a difficult financial situation. During that time my mum reached out to the Salvation Army in the Wirral and they provided us with food parcels and a treat for Christmas; without that we would have had to go without.
“As a teacher, I saw how much of a struggle it can be to make sure that your children are fed and that they have everything that they need for school; that they have leisure time and that they are well looked after. It is not a family’s fault that they don’t always have the means to provide this.
“Now I find myself in a position where I can pay things forward and repay the act of kindness that was given to us when I was a small child.”
As a primary school teacher, Louisa would often have children in her class who had come to school without eating breakfast, and when the morning breaktime came around these same children would be the ones without a snack in their bag. She began to take in fruit and packets of biscuits to give to the children who had not had anything to eat since they woke up. At the same time, Louisa began volunteering with a local grassroots charity who were cooking meals for the local homeless population.
“I began preparing meals for the homeless whenever I could, we would prepare 25 to 30 meals and take them to the night shelter. One day I thought ‘I could do that with lunches for children,’ so I enlisted help of family and friends and then managed to get a team of volunteers which has grown massively over the four years that I’ve been doing this. I still cook for the homeless but during the school holidays my priority is Looby Lou’s Lovely Lunches,” she explains.
Thanks to the generosity of a local businessman, who gave her £500 to get started, and donations of food and fundraising from friends, family and local businesses, Louisa was able to offer a packed lunch to children across the Wirral.
“When I first began Looby Lou’s Lovely Lunches, I thought 30 to 50 packed lunches a day would be revolutionary, but we now distribute up to 250 lunches a day.”
“When I first began Looby Lou’s Lovely Lunches, I thought 30 to 50 packed lunches a day would be revolutionary, but we now distribute up to 250 lunches a day. Each lunch bag is a brown paper bag which has a Looby Lou’s Lovely Lunches label on it, and inside each bag there is a soft drink, a piece of fruit, a sausage roll or a sandwich, a bag of crisps, individually wrapped chocolate biscuits, a yogurt and a little treat.”
Louisa was delighted to be nominated for the GDST Alumna of the Year Award by her old school, but she admits she never expected to win.
“I was up against nine other formidable women who were all worthy winners of this award, so to have the butty maker from Birkenhead win the award is amazing! To represent Birkenhead High as an alumna of the year is really something to be very proud of,” she says.
Louisa remembers her school days in Birkenhead as a time when opportunities opened up to her and inspired her career in teaching. She explains,
“When I attended Birkenhead High it was a fee-paying school and you had to sit an examination to gain a place at the school. I was very lucky to receive a free place because my family were not in a financial position to pay for me to attend.
“I remember going to the school office every Monday morning to get my free school meal money and it was done in such a way that didn’t make me feel awkward or uncomfortable around the other girls who didn’t have the same need. That is what Looby Lou’s Lovely Lunches is all about. Living on the Wirral, you find that there are beautiful areas of incredible houses and lots of affluent families, but you will also find areas of severe deprivation and the children living there don’t deserve to feel that they are less important than those living in the big houses up the road.
“I am so proud to win this award, it is recognition of the importance of supporting others, and it shows that you can make a real difference to people’s lives, by choosing do something, even if that starts off very small.”