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Eat My Lunch which provides lunches to children in need is an example of the new breed of social enterprise.
Eat My Lunch which provides lunches to children in need is an example of the new breed of social enterprise.

BusinessOctober 2, 2017

Eat My Lunch: the business of doing good

Eat My Lunch which provides lunches to children in need is an example of the new breed of social enterprise.
Eat My Lunch which provides lunches to children in need is an example of the new breed of social enterprise.

Eat My Lunch (EML) has changed the way New Zealanders think about where they buy their lunch and the power of their purchase. Rebecca Stevenson talks to founder Lisa King about the EML model, making a profit, and the company’s growth.  

When The Spinoff visited the Eat My Lunch kitchen early one Friday morning, the squad of volunteers – who were squeezing in a bit of good doing before heading off to their daily grind – were working on a sandwich production line designed for maximum productivity. There were a lot of lunches that needed to be made. A grid of sliced bread six slices wide and about 30 slices long got a swipe of mayonnaise and a slice of meat before a lid was slapped on. The production line continued further down the room where the sandwich was packaged in the distinctive EML brown cardboard lunch boxes, with a piece of fruit and a muffin added to the box. On this Friday, EML made around 1600 lunches for students in low decile schools in Auckland, Hamilton and Wellington, and around 1000 meals for Kiwis who chose to use the social enterprise to provide their lunch.

The now-famous Eat My Lunch lunchbox.

Founded in 2015, Eat My Lunch has quickly become New Zealand’s most recognisable social enterprise. Founder Lisa King’s journey to launching the business is now well known: she left her high-profile corporate marketing job to help feed some of the estimated 25,000 Kiwi kids who go to school every day without lunch. They adopted a model where for every lunch purchased, built into the cost was the donation of a lunch to a student at a low decile school. It’s been a huge success. In July, Eat My Lunch raised $800,000 in an innovative debt crowdfunding campaign. Lenders could choose different debt structures where loans were made at 6% interest and a lunch donated every month, or at 0% interest and two lunches donated every month. In August, they donated their 500,000th lunch, and last month, the venture started a new offering – Eat My Dinner. This could never have happened if EML was a charity.

“It came back to sustainability and also scalability. The problem of kids going hungry: we estimate there are probably around 25,000 kids in New Zealand a day. To be able to get to our mission of making sure none of them are going hungry, we knew it always had to be scalable and self-sustaining. Setting it up as a charity, relying on donations and funding; once they stop, your good work has to stop as well,” says King.

Last week the Social Enterprise World Forum (SEWF) was held in Christchurch. Social entrepreneurs from around the world came to share their stories on running businesses with a social goal. To mark the conference, The Spinoff has published a series on the rise of social enterprise in New Zealand. Today, Lisa King talks about EML’s journey, her mission, and why she chose to structure EML as a social enterprise.    

Lisa King founder of Eat My Lunch. (Photo: Rebecca Zephyr Thomas)

Eat my Lunch is a company rather than a registered charity, so people can’t claim back their lunches as charitable donations — can you explain the thinking behind this decision?

Starting with our mission of ensuring no kid in NZ goes to school hungry, we knew we had to be commercially self-sustaining and scalable. We also wanted to be nimble, innovative and  make decisions quickly, which we didn’t feel we could within a charity structure.

The proposition of EML is not to ask people to make a ‘donation’ – we are asking people to replace their current purchasing habits with another that does good at the same time. It’s giving consumers’ choice and our results have shown that people are happy to switch to something that meets their needs and also makes a difference for others.

Eat my Lunch has mostly had positive media coverage and has won many awards. But have there been any challenges that have come with that profile?

In our first 6 months, EML received over $2 million worth of free media coverage – we even had Lorde Instagram about us to 10 million of her followers. Our social media following has grown very organically and we currently have around 54,000 followers on Facebook and 10,700 on Instagram. We recently conducted an omnibus survey and have 50% brand awareness in just 2 years.

While all this has been extremely positive, we recently received some negative feedback around our 500,000th lunch campaign in which we published an open letter to members of parliament to take action and buy a lunch. We are always challenging ourselves to be different and disruptive (which is one of the reasons EML has been successful). We wanted to use our milestone not just as a celebration, but as a reminder that we have a massive child poverty issue. We tried to be a little cheeky and push the boat with this campaign. While 99% of feedback was positive, we did upset some people. It was a good reminder that we have built a strong reputation and we need to always remain true to our values.

There is concern social enterprise is stepping in where governments should be operating. Do you think this is valid?

I believe that it is all of our responsibility – individuals, charities, government, and businesses to help those who need it in our community. We all have a part to play. As the saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child.

What does the company do with its profits?

We have been in startup mode for the last two years and reinvesting money into expanding the operations (for example setting up Wellington) and also ensuring we have the right infrastructure to support our growth. As a company, everything we do is to drive us to deliver more lunches to kids.

We have big plans in the next few years to get to our goal of feeding 25,000 kids every day in New Zealand, so I see us continuing to reinvest to make that happen.

I noticed recently that the website had a banner running stating Auckland waterfront deliveries were running late. How often is late delivery an issue? And how do people react when their lunch is late? Are there any other major issues or logistics issues you’ve experienced?

One of the things we do well is logistics and we have invested heavily in this area, using route optimisation software and a programme that allows us to track where our couriers and lunches are when they are on the road. In fact, I always tell people that operationally, we are a supply chain and logistics company and we just happen to make lunch.

At 9:30am every weekday, we have 14 drivers who come and pick up lunches to make sure they are delivered to people’s desks by 12:30pm. As well as this is planned, sometimes rain and traffic (especially Auckland traffic in rain!) means that we may run a little late.

We find that as long as we let people know in advance, then our customers are very understanding. For us it goes back to communication and transparency.

The Spinoff’s social enterprise panel hosted in the Eat My Lunch Kitchen. (Photo: Rebecca Zephyr Thomas)

You’ve expanded into dinners recently — do you see Eat my Dinner expanding, and what would the timeline for that look like? Where would you take it?

Dinners are a key meal occasion and are a huge opportunity. It was a natural extension of lunch and we wanted to provide a great consumer solution for people who are too busy to cook but still want something healthy and also does good. Consumers sign up to receive a freshly made, heat and eat dinner, delivered to their homes. They choose whether they want one just one night a week or enough for the family 5 nights a week. And of course, for every meal bought, a lunch is given to a Kiwi kid.

We just launched Eat My Dinner on September 18 in central Auckland and will be expanding our delivery areas quickly. We will be offering dinners in Wellington next year.

Eat my Lunch now has Foodstuffs as a shareholder. Does being tied to a large co-operative present any reputational issues for Eat my Lunch? For example, First Union has claimed wages are lower at Foodstuffs’ outlets compared with Progressive because the co-operative structure makes collective bargaining difficult.

Since we announced that Foodstuffs had invested in EML, the reaction internally and externally has been extremely positive. We all know the goal we want to get to and the partnership with Foodstuffs means that we will get there faster. It makes sense for us to align with a company like Foodstuffs who has 26% equity in the business.

Within EML, we have a very distinct culture and clear values. This doesn’t change because it has made EML what it is today.

The content is brought to you by Kiwibank in association with the Social Enterprise World Forum.

The Social Enterprise World Forum was held in Christchurch from September 27-29th.

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