Eat My Lunch: Free lunches for underprivileged Kiwi kids

The New Zealand enterprise is on a mission to ensure that no Kiwi kid goes to school without food.

by Portia Ladrido

Kiwi kids receive lunch delivered by volunteers of Eat My Lunch. © Eat My Lunch

One in four children in New Zealand live in poverty and attend school with either just a piece of orange for lunch or none at all. Eat My Lunch, a social enterprise that started two years ago, set out to address this issue with a simple concept in mind: for every lunch bought by a customer, a lunch is made for a Kiwi kid in need. Now in 48 schools across Auckland, Wellington, and Hamilton, the enterprise has also attracted over 3,500 volunteers who make, pack, and deliver lunches for the children. They have already given 450,000 lunches to children in just two years of operations, and are continuously making over 1,600 lunches every day to ensure that no Kiwi kid finishes their day in school with an empty stomach.

The rapidly growing business was founded by award-winning entrepreneur Lisa King and Auckland chef Michael Meredith. INKLINE talks to Lisa to know more about the nitty-gritty of the enterprise and the importance of injecting social good into a business model.

INKLINE: The idea is pretty simple, but can you course us through how the day-to-day operations of Eat My Lunch really work?

Lisa King: I would say that we’re more like a logistics and a supply chain business rather than a food business. All our orders are taken online so we’re very much an online business. We’ve got two types of customers: people who subscribe every week to a lunch, so you might go, ‘I’ll have lunch delivered to me on a Monday and a Wednesday’ and you sign up as a regular weekly order, and then we also have businesses who use us for catering, for meetings and functions.

All the orders are locked in 36 hours beforehand, so for example, Wednesday at midnight, our orders for Friday will be locked. Thursday morning, we’ll put in our orders to our suppliers. Everything turns out 5 am on Friday morning and we’ve got our team here and they’ll make the lunches for the customers. Then at 6:30 am all the volunteers make lunches for the kids. By 9:30 in the morning, everything is done and we have about 14 couriers that pick up the lunches and deliver them to all our customers by 12:30 in time for lunch on Friday.

It’s a very sleek and efficient operation but it needs to be given that we’re dealing with food. It’s an incredibly simple idea. People go online, order their lunch, and it just turns up. But behind it all is a very complex logistical business.

I: With the complexity of logistics, what are the challenges that the operations usually face?

L: Dealing with fresh food. What’s also different with our model is that we only order exactly what we need. We have the visibility of how many lunches we’re going to make, so tomorrow morning, for example, we’re going to order 1,024 food rolls or 1,024 muffins to our suppliers and we only order exactly what we need so that we pretty much have zero food waste.

The challenge is when everything’s freshly baked for you and you’re dealing with fresh produce you don’t always get exactly what you need. Sometimes the baker might shortchange you as we buy things in weight and it might not be the exact count. For example, with apples, we would need 1,024 but because we order it by weight, we might only get 900 apples depending on the size, seasonality, and availability.

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Chef Michael Meredith and Lisa King are set to scale the business so they can feed as many Kiwis in need as possible. © Eat My Lunch

I: What keeps you and Michael going especially that you guys are rapidly expanding and looking to scale?

L: Even though we run like a business, at the heart of everything that we do is our social purpose which is to ensure that no kid is going to school hungry. It’s so simple, it’s just a lunch but it makes a huge difference. There are a lot of kids that are not even coming to school because the parents are too embarrassed to send them to school without any food.

The lunches we give to kids are packed with protein and vegetables and it’s really healthy so the kids are actually being exposed to a lot of food that they would normally not eat. In New Zealand, we also have another problem which is around obesity. We’re the third fattest country behind the USA and Mexico, which is shocking. A third of our kids are overweight or obese. And what we’re starting to see is that there’s a lot of type 2 diabetes with kids in New Zealand, now that we’ve never had before.

It’s so simple, it’s just a lunch but it makes a huge difference. There are a lot of kids that are not even coming to school because the parents are too embarrassed to send them to school without any food.

Just being able to influence their palette and expose them to what healthy eating looks like has been a big motivator for us. Some of the kids actually become the ‘health police’ in school, telling the other kids that their lunches are not healthy enough. There is a lot of unintended impact beyond just making sure that they’re not hungry. And I think for Michael and me, the first 6 or 7 months, every day, we’d take lunches to some of the schools and that was our reward at the end of the day – just to see the kids and see the impact that we’re having and knowing that we’re making a difference in a small way to these kids every single day.

I: Was it a surprise to you when you were researching about what social issue to address to know that there were Kiwi kids who didn’t have access to proper food?

L: It was shocking for everyone in New Zealand when the problem was exposed on national TV. Everyone was talking about it because I think people see a place like New Zealand as a place where everyone has equal access and opportunities to everything. We’re a land of agriculture and dairy and we have a beautiful environment that we live in and you just wouldn’t think that there was this massive problem.

Eat My Lunch also makes sure that the food they expose the children to, are healthy and well-balanced meals. © Eat My Lunch

We’re not talking poverty and hunger like in third world countries, but we shouldn’t be because we’re not a third-world country. There are kids – and I’ve seen them – they’d go an entire day with maybe an orange or just a pack of chips. Food is such a fundamental basic right and this, particularly with kids, they shouldn’t be going without. And I think we’re all really shocked and what Eat My Lunch has been able to do is also bring some of that awareness to the people. We all live in our own little bubbles and think everyone’s doing what we’re doing and that’s just not the reality of it.

I: How important is it for you to do address this issue at the grassroots level? Like really ensuring that kids at school have something as basic as lunches. 

L: We have a big mission. We have a mission that no kid in New Zealand is hungry. We estimate that there are around 25,000 kids every day in New Zealand that’s going without food. That’s a really big goal so the impact is absolutely vital and we never thought that it would get this big this fast. But we also have a view in mind around scalability and sustainability because the last thing we ever want to do is to tell a school that we can’t give them lunches anymore.

Around scalability, we want to get to as many of those kids as possible. From the start, we’ve thought that if we were to do this on a national scale how would that work and what would that look like? Our model can be scalable and repeatable in different locations. I think the absolute impact is immediate and you see it. With these kids, the changes are almost immediate for them but our big goal is to be able to do that for every child that needs it.

The enterprise has a strong volunteer network that helps them deliver lunches. © Eat My Lunch

I: What has been the most satisfying thing about doing a business whilst doing social good? 

L: The funny thing is when we first came up with this idea and we went to the bank and asked for a loan to get the idea off the ground, the bank manager told us that he thought it was a stupid idea. He said that there’s no way you can make money while giving away free lunches and that was actually a motivating factor for me to actually really do it and just to show that having a business, doing a social good, and giving back to community does not mean you have to exclude making money – those two things coexist and they actually, in a model like Eat My lunch, are intrinsically linked. The more lunches we sell, the more money we make, and the more good we can do.

It can’t just be about making money and we all have the responsibility to help those most vulnerable in our community.

I think it’s been satisfying to prove and show that businesses can do good and when you do that, the money comes. You don’t have to sacrifice one for the other. Probably for me, one of my biggest recognitions was last year, they have these Women of Influence awards and I won the business enterprise category for just showing what our business model can achieve. And this is how businesses should think in the future. It can’t just be about making money and we all have the responsibility to help those most vulnerable in our community.

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