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Award winning lunch business helping disadvantaged kiwi children

Eat My Lunch founder Lisa King joined Purposely Podcast to share her story.

Lisa was alerted by a news article she read about the damaging effects of food poverty on children in New Zealand. She was wearing a pair of Toms Shoes and Eat My Lunch was born using the same, buy one, gift one, model as the American company.

‘I was watching a news piece and I asking myself the question how can kids be going to school all day and not eating? I really wanted to do something about it and one night I was talking about it and I happened to be wearing a pair of TOMS shoes. And I just thought this is such a great simple model. Why don’t we just do it for lunches!’

What is Eat My Lunch’s mission?

‘Eat My Lunch’s mission is to ensure that no child goes to school hungry and starving here in our own backyard of New Zealand. Eat My Lunch is a business, a for profit business with a big social purpose. I started it June 2015, so pretty much six years ago from my home kitchen with Chef Michael Meredith’

There are some quite damning statistics in New Zealand with almost 30% of Kiwi kids living in poverty and a significant number of children going to school hungry. When you started unpacking the social problems were you shocked with what you found out?

‘You didn't have to do a lot of research to understand the impact that not eating can have on children. That said what we did uncover is a wider issue where parents weren't actually sending their kids to school because they were too embarrassed to send them in without food. Schools were recording quite a high number of absentees because kids didn't have food.’

‘There's obviously the impact (of no food) on concentration as well as behaviour in class. Teachers would say that you can tell when a kid's eaten because of what they are like in the morning is completely different to what they're like once they've actually had lunch.’

‘So it is really important that we didn't just give them filling food that we actually gave them really nutritious and healthy food as well. That's why our lunches are made fresh every day. We've given over 1.6 million lunches now and that's just in Auckland and Wellington. Earlier this year we became a supplier for the Government's healthy school lunch program. Through that we've delivered another 1.3 million lunches. So yeah, all in all, a lot of lunches the last six years’

So what was the thinking behind setting up as a business rather than a charity?

‘I'd spent 15 years working in corporate as well as time volunteering for charities, so I knew a bit about both and I just didn't want to spend all my time trying to raise money, writing grant applications and trying to get funding. It made sense to me that there would be a business model behind it and that it would be self-funding and we weren't going to be reliant on donations and funding from external parties. ‘That said we have this debate all the time… although particularly in those early days i.e. should it be a charity? Partially because there wasn't any legal structure to support something in the middle! One advantage is that we could get investment which enabled us to scale quickly. There were certainly some disadvantages around tax though… Yeah and we don't get any tax benefits’.

Was it an advantage having a business background yourself?

‘It was a real advantage, having all of that corporate and commercial experience, we knew how to negotiate with suppliers, we knew know how to deliver a customer experience, the marketing, the branding, you know, a lot of things I think small new start-ups struggle with at first. We were also able to use some of our networks to drum up those initial customers. We'd get to partners we'd work with before and they trusted us. I think having that experience gave us a real advantage. Also, people in New Zealand responded really well to the idea, this idea that they could buy a lunch knowing that they've funded a lunch for another kid in need. I think it comes down to the simplicity of the idea, both concept and the execution of the idea of it. Incredibly we hit our three-year forecast in just 12 weeks. The growth was huge and we were soon looking for our first commercial kitchen.’

In those early days it totally consumed your life at a time you also had young children?

‘Yes my kids were six and eight when we started Eat My Lunch. I had never had my own business before and really didn’t realize how all-consuming it would be. You go to sleep talking about, you dream about it and then you wake up and that's the first thing you do. In those early stages you're doing everything yourself including customer services, you're doing purchasing, logistics, everything! I'd then spend the evenings preparing for the next day. It was hard but well worth it’

‘Things have really progressed and we've got two kitchens in Auckland now and one in Wellington. When we secured the government programe we hired an extra 180 odd people at the start of this year. So we've got a staff number of 239. So it's a pretty big team now. Yeah. And we're making about 19,000 lunches a day.’

You have been marketeer for a long time. Are you happiest as a leader or do you love the marketing the most?

‘I love making shit happen. I love coming up with the idea, I love that creative side… what I want it to look like and then getting the right people on board to make it happen. But yeah, I love marketing and branding and communication. I think it's so key. And, you know, I think again through Eat My Lunch that we had this massive advantage that we were able to tell the stories and a way that consumers responded to it, you know, emotionally and say that, that always gives me a bit of a buzz.’

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