When Zane Powles realised that the UK was probably going into a lockdown in March last year, his first thought was about the schoolchildren. Specifically, their stomachs. “I thought: how will the kids get their free school meals?” says the 49-year-old assistant headteacher from Cleethorpes. “I know our kids live hand to mouth.” Powles’s solution was straightforward: he would personally deliver them all. And so he did: 15,000 meals, over a distance of 900 miles, through lockdowns one, two and three.
In rain and hot sun, Powles pounded the streets, meals in tow, for the next 12 months. Christmas lights appeared in windows, and were packed away again. “I delivered meals for one week short of a year,” says Powles. “It’s mad looking back. Crazy.”
“He’s an absolute hero without a cape,” says Claire Pulfrey, a parent at Powles’s school. “I have a son with ADHD and it got to a point at the end of the last lockdown where I was struggling to cope. Seeing Zane every day was like a little ball of happiness.”
Before Covid, Powles ran a unit attached to a Grimsby primary school for children with challenging behaviour. “I’ve been running the unit for nine years,” he says. “I get hit by a kid probably six times a week. They’re just communicating with me the only way they can. You have to get past that, and find out what the real problem is.”
Grimsby is one of the most deprived areas of the UK. “Families haven’t got much,” says Powles. “The vast majority of families are trying their best, but they are struggling. The issues are cyclical and generational.” Students often go to school hungry.
On 23 March 2020, when lockdown was announced, Powles looked at the list of children on free school meals, and mapped out their home addresses. There were 85 meals to be delivered each day. Powles would get into school at 7.30am to prepare the lunch bags with the headteacher and whoever else was around. Then he’d set off, wearing two backpacks – one on his front and one on his back – and carrying a bin liner full of crisps.
“I was carrying around 50kg a day,” says Powles. “I’d have to come back mid-morning to reload.” The bags dug painful welts in his shoulders. When it was hot, his back would be covered in sweat. Powles damaged his knee badly as a result of all the walking, and is currently awaiting surgery.
Later, when vouchers for free school meals were introduced, the parcels got even heavier. Powles was cramming jacket potatoes and baked beans into the backpacks. “Bloody hell,” he says. “It was very heavy.” At Christmas time, Powles became a festive carthorse, dragging 250 Christmas hampers loaded on to a trailer. “Man,” he says, “that was painful.”
Despite his aching shoulders and damaged knee, Powles was glad to see the families face to face, to check all was well at home.
There was one mother who would normally save a few pounds a week during term to put towards feeding her children over the holidays. But she wasn’t prepared, as schools had shut suddenly, and only one of her children was entitled to free school meals. “I realised,” Powles said, “she was halving his meal to feed the other child.” Powles arranged for an extra meal to be delivered every day. “The kid said to me, ‘Mr Powles, you saved the world!’.”
Powles can relate to these families. “One of the reasons I have such a connection to these children,” he says, “is because I have been that person.” As a child, he attended six different primary schools, and was also on free school meals. “My mum masked a lot of it,” he says, “because she was a great mum and did her best, in tough circumstances.”
Despite receiving an MBE for his charity work, he does not see what he did as remarkable. “I was just doing my job,” he says. When I ask Powles what he’d like for his treat, his answer surprises me. “This will sound really weird,” he ventures. “Have you ever seen the show Naked and Afraid?” Powles hastily clarifies: “I love being challenged. Being out in the wild on my own, and enjoying the beauty of it.”
Trueways Survival, one of the UK’s largest providers of survival courses, kindly offers Powles a complimentary space on its two-day urban survival course, held near Cranleigh, Surrey. I catch up with him shortly afterwards. He is parked in his camper van, near Marlow, Buckinghamshire. It’s half-term.
“The instructor was brilliant.” he says. Powles learned to boil water in a plastic bottle and to sterilise and filter water on the move. He plans to buy the special UV pen the instructor recommended for sterilisation. “I’d love to go for three or four days’ wild camping at a time,” says Powles, but he was always put off by the prospect of bringing a four-day supply of water. “I can never carry that much.”
Now, with the pen, he has found a useful workaround. He plans to take it when he goes wild camping in the Peak District during his next holiday. “I’ll put that knowledge to good use,” says Powles, ever the teacher – and can-do adventurer.
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