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Food for thought in the business of doing good

Commercially viable businesses focused on doing good operate in an area traditionally filled by charities. However, a disconnect between business and charity could be leaving some needy children’s school lunchboxes empty. Farah Hancock reports.

The response to a ‘Lobby your MP’ challenge Eat My Lunch posted on Facebook was not what they expected.

“Morning ladies and gents”, their open letter to members of Parliament read.

“Child poverty is one of New Zealand’s most pressing issues and it’s time we delved into it. We gather you’re not ones to turn down a decent meal, so here’s a little food for thought – and don’t worry you don’t have to pass a pesky bill. In fact, you barely have to lift a fork. Just order your lunch from Eat my Lunch.”

Facebook users were quick to point out passing pesky bills was exactly what needed to be done to tackle child poverty and lobbying should be done for real change, not spare change.

Others questioned whether hungry children were being used as a marketing tool to drum up business.

Eat my Lunch operates as a social enterprise. Their trademarked slogan, Buy One. Give One is how the company promotes itself. Buy a lunch for yourself and another lunch is given to a school child in need.

The founder of Eat My Lunch, Lisa King, says the intention of the Lobby your MP campaign was to highlight the milestone of giving away 500,000 lunches to school children since she began the company two years ago.

“I was personally upset that anyone got offended. We definitely believe fundamental change does come from legislation and policies. It didn’t even enter our minds that people would have thought that suggesting buying a lunch could solve poverty.”

King was inspired to start Eat My Lunch after watching a Campbell Live show which compared the lunchboxes of decile one students to decile 10. The decile one students had poor quality lunches or no lunch at all. 

“I was really shocked by it, that this is actually happening here in New Zealand. As a mum with two young kids I just wanted to do something about it. I had the urge to take some action, rather than just talk about it."

She says social enterprises need to be commercially viable in order to do good.

“As a business, you have to apply good business principles, such as marketing, sales – all the basics of running a good business to ensure we’re feeding more and more kids.”

For Eat My Lunch, the focus is to be self-sustaining. King never wants to withdraw their services from a school because of a lack of funds.

“I think that’s the danger of being a charity, you are so reliant on donations and funding and grants, and when those are withdrawn, pretty much all your good work has to stop.”

King has a point. New Zealand’s largest foodbank, 0800 Hungry, has operated since 2001. This week it faces closure unless it pays $30,000 in rent by Thursday.

Operating in an area traditionally filled by charities, the presence of social enterprises can cause tension. A Council for International Development report shows New Zealanders spend 15 percent less on donations to charities than they did 10 years ago.

While social enterprises might be gaining some of the donations it's not just lost money charities are worried about. Overlap of services are also a concern.

Massey University’s Dr Jeff Stangl researches social enterprises. He says duplicating effort where there are limited resources defeats a social enterprise’s purpose.

“There has to be collaboration and awareness of what’s going on in the sector. If a particular need is being satisfied by charity and they’ve got a strong donor base, what’s the purpose of the social enterprise jumping into that space and taking over? There wouldn’t be one.”

For 11 years KidsCan has supplied food to hungry school children. The charity says donations of bread, spreads, scroggin, yoghurt, fruit pottles and ready-to-heat meals are currently feeding 29,000 children a week in 675 schools.  

“It would be good to see businesses that want to address social issues collaborating with existing successful organisations on where gaps exist, so that the greatest number of people or children in need can benefit.”

- KidsCan CEO Julie Chapman

They have a waiting list; 27 schools are currently in the queue for food support.

Eat My Lunch’s service now overlaps KidsCan’s. Of the 48 schools Eat My Lunch supply, 38 are also supplied by KidsCan. Eat My Lunch have a waiting list of around 30 schools.

The duplication in some schools, while others remain on a waiting list, is something KidsCan CEO Julie Chapman wishes collaboration could solve.

Before Eat My Lunch launched they got in touch with KidsCan. Initially the idea was for Eat My Lunch to donate money to KidsCan, however, Eat My Lunch later decided to change their business model to supplying the lunches themselves, says Chapman.

“It was at this point we suggested to them that it would be great if they could look at supporting children in schools we were unable to reach. We had a waiting list of schools in immediate need of support. We thought this was a still a good opportunity for us to work together to get food to these children who were going hungry.”

Eat My Lunch's King says when they began, they approached schools based on the logistics of delivering food.

“We identified Mangere, there were a lot of decile one and two schools in a small area.

“We went to one school which is Mangere Central and they were our first school. They were getting food donations from KidsCan at the time but they weren’t getting any fresh food and that was what we were offering. Food that is literally made fresh every morning, is packed full of vegetables and protein and is packed in a brown paper bag that is easy for the teachers to distribute.”

Deputy principal of Otara’s Bairds Mainfreight Primary, Fiona McAree, says their school was receiving food from KidsCan already when Eat My Lunch emailed them. The school now uses both services, feeding half of the children in need with items donated from KidsCan and the rest with Eat My Lunch meals.

Having food available at school affects attendance. When kitchen cupboards at home are empty, so are the classrooms.

“It has our kids at school, basically is the huge thing for us rather than being home, historically lots of kids stayed home when they didn’t have enough food.”

While some schools are being well fed with lunch donations from multiple services, others on waiting lists face the daily struggle of trying to educate hungry, or absent children.

Chapman says KidsCan regularly survey the schools they supply to find out if they are supplying enough food to feed the children. In the last survey 87 percent said they had enough food. For the remaining schools KidsCan increased the supply and for one school receiving Eat My Lunch meals, they reduced the quantity at the school’s request.

She says social enterprises should work with charities when they look for problems to solve.

“It would be good to see businesses that want to address social issues collaborating with existing successful organisations on where gaps exist, so that the greatest number of people or children in need can benefit.”

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