The business giving a free lunch to a hungry schoolchild for every one it sells

by Jennifer Bowden / 17 June, 2017

Photo/Getty Images

After delivering more than 100 free lunches to a struggling South Auckland school, Lisa King was initially puzzled when she learnt the children weren’t eating the nutritious food during their midday break. King, co-founder of social enterprise Eat My Lunch, found this out after asking the principal whether the children enjoyed the food. The principal replied that most of the kids saved their lunches to take home, because they didn’t know when they were going to have their next meal.

Lack of food security is a big problem in New Zealand, as many families struggle to afford nutritionally adequate and safe food. In 2002, more than 22% of New Zealand households with children aged 5-14 years reported that “food runs out because of lack of money” sometimes (18%) or often (4%) – and 40% of larger families (with seven members or more) reported a lack of money led to food running out.

Eat My Lunch provides about 1600 free lunches to hungry children in 46 schools in Auckland, Hamilton and Wellington every weekday. That’s more than 410,000 lunches since the business was founded in June 2015.

But King believes the problem is much larger. She estimates that every day, at least 25,000 New Zealand kids are going hungry, and that’s entirely plausible, since New Zealand schoolteachers estimated in 1995 that about 20,000 children were inadequately fed during the school day. “That’s a massive number and it just shouldn’t be happening in a country like ours,” says King.

Eat My Lunch’s Lisa King and Auckland chef Michael Meredith. Photo/Kieran Scott

Research shows that undernourished children decrease their activity levels and become more apathetic, so they don’t have the energy to participate in their education or activities. This in turn affects their social interactions, inquisitiveness and overall cognitive development. They’re also at greater risk of numerous nutrition-related illnesses.

Fortunately, the students at the South Auckland school are now happily eating regular free lunches, safe in the knowledge that another will arrive tomorrow. “The school nurse said to me, a month after Eat My Lunch started, she saw this huge improvement in the kids’ skin just from the food we’re giving them,” says King.

Eat My Lunch isn’t a charity per se but rather a hybrid model of business and charity. King is a big fan of Toms Shoes, a US company that gives a new pair of shoes to a child in need for every pair it sells. “I thought, ‘Why can’t we apply the same model to lunch?’ We all eat lunch every day, and working in the city, you spend so much money on lunch, buying it at cafes or takeaways.” So King and her business partner crunched the numbers and created a system by which every lunch bought would fund a free lunch for a child.

They approached renowned Auckland chef Michael Meredith to ask if he’d consider getting involved. “When I told him the idea was when you buy a lunch, a lunch gets given to a kid, he was just like, ‘I’m totally in.’ From that point he was at my house testing recipes, and when we started, he was there every morning after running his restaurant; he would come in at 5am and make sandwiches.”

King quit her job in global marketing at Fonterra and, with Meredith and her business partner, Iaan Buchanan, made lunches in the kitchen of her Mt Eden home. A team of volunteers managed to pump out 1500 lunches a day before they relocated to commercial premises.

Eat My Lunch now has 20 schools on its waiting list for lunches and a six- to eight-week waiting list for volunteers to make the lunches. What they need is more paying corporate and individual customers to fund the giving side of the business.

Says King, “It’s so easy. You just have to buy your lunch from us – it’s $12 delivered to you at work – and so we try to challenge everyone to do their bit by buying a lunch.”

This article was first published in the June 3, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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