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From famine to feast: how Eat My Lunch survived Covid to grow ten-fold

Interview: Lisa King, Eat My Lunch

You probably know about Eat My Lunch, the pioneering social enterprise that’s won awards for its clever ‘Buy One, Give One’ business model. For every lunch you buy, one is made fresh for a child in a low-socio-economic school. So far Eat My Lunch has made 1.6 million lunches. But what happened when Covid lockdown sent office workers and schools home for weeks on end? And also what happened when eight months later the government picked Eat My Lunch to provide thousands of lunches for Ka Ora, Ka Ako, its new school lunches programme?

The Feed’s Vincent Heeringa spoke to founder Lisa King about her incredibly interesting year.

Vincent: Congratulations on winning the new contract. It’s for 16,500 lunches, which is probably about 10 times as many lunches as you were doing. Have I got the numbers, right?

Lisa: Yeah, actually it’s crept up since then. We’ve brought on a few more this last term, so it’s probably closer to about 18,000 a day now. And before this contract we were doing just under 2000 lunches to kids a day. So the scale-up has been incredible. And over a very short period of time. We were only notified in November last year and had to start delivering lunches by the end of January. So it’s been a really massive effort by the team to hire people.

VH: How many?

LK: We’ve hired an additional 189 staff over that period and we’ve had to find another kitchen to handle all of that. Just making the lunches storage, you know, chillers, just everything you can think of that you need. And also lease another 20 odd vehicles to be able to deliver them. So the team hasn’t had a lot of sleep over the last few months.

VH: And this was all over the Christmas period!

LK: Yeah. We were really looking forward to having a break over Easter cause, they didn’t get much of one over Christmas, unfortunately. But they’ve just done an amazing job. And I think, again, it just goes to show when there is such a great purpose and a great reason for working long hours and getting up at all times in the morning, people are happy to do that when we know that the impact and the outcomes are going to be really positive.

VH: I just want to know a little bit more about the logistics of that exercise of scaling up so fast. Just break it down a little bit.

LK: Our team is led by Kelly, our general manager, and working with her we’ve now got a new person in logistics and supply chain. Before this, the team was relatively young and at the right level of experience for where it was. But the new guy Matt, who worked in logistics, he’s had to figure out how many drivers we’re going to need, how many cars, how long it takes to get to all of the schools. We’re delivering lunches to 35 schools a day. How do you get all the lunches into a van? What kind of gear do we need for that?  I think the learning curve with the team has been incredibly steep and they’ve just done such an amazing job. When recruited these guys, it was all about attitude and values and being problem solvers.

VH: In a country full of food, how can we have kids going to school hungry?

LK: I had no idea that this problem existed in New Zealand. You know, you hear about it in developing countries but had no idea it existed in New Zealand. It was probably about six, seven years ago. There was a news piece on Campbell Live where a reporter went to a decile 10 school and asked the kids to put their lunches on their desks. Every kid had a lunch and they were all beautiful, healthy lunches. And then he drove about 20 minutes down the road to another school in Auckland at a low decile school and asked the kids to do the same. And only two out of 24 of the kids had lunches. And yeah, the ones that did bring any food, it was like chips or soft drinks, or two bits of white bread.

I just couldn’t imagine my kids going to school all day and not eating and having to sit there and learn and focus in class. I mean, how can you expect kids to do that when they’re just thinking about how hungry they are?

VH: What were you doing at the time, Lisa?

LK: I’d been 15 years in marketing for big food companies. And so, you know, I was constantly surrounded by food and I was at that time working for Fonterra. It just didn’t sit right with me. And there was no government programme back then. There were charities doing their bits, but it was irregular. And a lot of the food that was being given wasn’t particularly healthy. I was wearing a pair of Toms shoes one night and they had this ‘buy-one, give-one’ model, which I really loved, and I just thought, why don’t we do that for food and for lunch?

VH: Is Ka Ora, Ka Ako a ‘buy-one, give-one’, model?

LK: No. This one is government-funded for the lunches. But we still operating our ‘buy-one, give-one’ part of the business because not every school is part of the government program. About 30 schools out of the 70 that we were supporting haven’t been selected or have opted out of the government program.

VH: What happened during Covid?

LK: When it was first announced that we’re about to go into lockdown you and that businesses were closing and schools were closing, the biggest worry I had was, well, how are we going to get food to kids? Just because school closes doesn’t mean that kids stop going hungry. And so we had two issues to deal with. In order for us to give our lunches, people had to buy them. Our customers are all corporate based. And so when people don’t come to work our revenue stream stopped.

So we quickly sought permission to deliver fresh groceries to people’s homes. There was a huge demand for online deliveries from supermarkets and people were stocking up on grocery items, but you can’t stock up on fresh fruit and vegetables. And so we were able to change the business model really quickly and be able to do that through the lockdown period.

VH: Was that funded? Were people paying for the deliveries or was that coming from donations?

LK: So these were our customers. People just, you know, your average Kiwi family that wanted some fruit and veggies delivered to their home during the day – and they were paying for that. That enabled us to then do the lunches for the kids.

VH: So the model continued, you just adapted it for the circumstances.

LK: Yeah. And then for the kids, instead of delivering freshly made lunches every day to schools, we delivered to their homes a box full of fresh fruit and or the ingredients that they needed to make their own lunches for the week. So that was about 2000 kids a week.

VH: And I was reading that it highlighted another issue for you that has been on your mind for some time about food education, because it’s one thing to be given a made-up sandwich which is a great obviously a great service, but this opened up an opportunity also to talk about making food, using ingredients, right?

LK:  The feedback that we got during that time was amazing. You know, we were getting photos from families of the kids creating their own food. I remember one photo that we got this kid had made sushi out of the bread and the ingredients – they’d rolled up the bread with the ingredients in the middle! And then some of the food that they didn’t use for lunch they’d use it for dinner or another meal. So, it’s just so cool seeing how creative the kids got and how much they enjoyed actually being able to cook and make their own meals.

VH: Do you think that people are removed from food, seeing food not as ingredients?

LK: Yeah. I always remember being really shocked when Jamie Oliver went into a school in the UK and asked where do chips come from? And they can’t actually name potato as the source, or only being able to name six vegetables. I love food and I’ve always taught my kids about where food comes from. So food education and also exposure to a wide variety of food is really important.

VH: Thanks so much for the time Lisa, you better get back to it.

LK: Thanks, Vincent.

 

This is an edited version of the interview. Listen to the entire episode here! It starts at 28 minutes.

 

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Vincent Heeringa

Vincent Heeringa

Vincent Heeringa is a communications strategist, writer, marketer and PR expert specialising in tech, investment, and sustainability. He was co-founder of Idealog, Stoppress and Good magazines and helped establish the Science Media Centre. He is the host of a podcast ‘This Climate Business’, co-founder of The Feed.co.nz, and a trustee of the Adventure Specialties Trust. And there's nothing he loves more than a good story. vincentheeringa.com

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