Lisa King was no stranger to good deeds having once secured Neil Finn to entertain the folks at City Mission on Christmas Day, but in 2015 she upped the charity ante by founding Eat My Lunch, a “for-profit commercial enterprise, with a big social mission”. That mission is to feed hungry schoolkids by way of a simple business model: for every meal her catering company sells, they donate a lunch to a kid in need.
“What sparked the idea was when I saw the Campbell Live report on lunchboxes in schools [the 2012 investigation into child poverty], and I got quite upset about it,” says Lisa. “It really stuck with me, and, having spent 15 years working in big business and corporate, I wondered what I could do to help.”
Had you worked in catering before?
“No, never! We had no idea what we were getting ourselves in to. A couple of months after we started, Diane Foreman came to our house and said that we had chosen the hardest industry — especially using fresh produce every day.”
Lisa partnered with esteemed chef Michael Meredith who “shared a passion for community”. The project began out of Lisa’s kitchen where they expected to be preparing around 50 meals a day for the first year, but within the first 12 weeks hit their three-year forecast. Michael estimated they wouldn’t be able to prepare any more than 200 meals daily from Lisa’s home, but by the time Eat My Lunch shifted to larger premises they were sending out around 700.
“I’m a self-proclaimed foodie!” says Lisa. “Michael and I plan everything, design and test the recipes ourselves. I started out with a very romantic idea of how it would work, making everything ourselves from my home, but it soon became apparent that it wasn’t going to turn out that way.”
It’s certainly a satisfying way to experience a sense of disappointment. In just a couple of years, Eat My Lunch has given more than 600,000 meals to 55 schools across Auckland, Wellington and Hamilton. There are a further 50 schools on a waiting list. “Every day people from around the country ask when we are going to come to them,” Lisa says. “Especially in places such as Christchurch. But we’re still a relatively new company, so we just need more time.” The company recently released a cookbook, Food for Good, “full of easy family recipes and beautiful photos of the kids and volunteers” with a free meal given for every unit sold too.
The charitable arm of the business is staffed by volunteers who prepare more than 1,800 lunches per day. “We have had over 5,000 people volunteer over the past two years, and usually have a two-month waiting list,” Lisa says. “It’s a real mixture of people, from high school students to doctors and lawyers, to CEOs and sportspeople and retirees. It’s amazing to meet all these people that you wouldn’t usually get to meet, and when they come in and don an apron, everyone is the same. I love the fact that we be able to bring different parts of the community together through this work.”
Lisa also stresses the importance of healthy ingredients. “We won’t prepare anything that we wouldn’t give our own kids,” she says. “There are lots of vegetables, and portion sizes are important, too. Then, everything is packaged in plain brown paper bags to look as though it could be something that the kids brought from home, and given to the teachers to hand out. It is very discreet.”
Something that the organisation would like to develop and expand further are the cooking classes that Michael conducts for the kids — with some even then even introducing their parents to some tips back at home.
“Sometimes parents were not sending their kids to school when they’d run out of food,” laments Lisa. “So, Eat My Lunch has also gone some way to cutting down absenteeism.”
But there’s still much that needs to be done.
“Child poverty has doubled since the ‘80s,” says Lisa, “and a lot of principals have told me the problem is getting worse. The new government have spoken a lot about the issue, and we want to do all we can to help. We do try to stay out of the political arena, but businesses have shown that they can have a big impact on social issues. We are working on the immediate issue of feeding kids in poverty. The government’s role is to tackle the deeper, systemic issue as to why families are getting into that situation in the first place.”