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Nici Wickes helps feed a need

Our Food Editor Nici Wickes puts her culinary skills to good use with a philanthropic group of Kiwis.

By Alice O'Connell
It's six in the morning, not yet light and the streets of Auckland's Mt Eden are quiet and empty, bar a few eager joggers out for an early run. But behind the doors of one unassuming property, there's a hive of activity happening. The team at Eat My Lunch – a new initiative to help feed school children who would otherwise go without – are wide awake, slicing vegetables, assembling sandwiches and stacking boxes high, ready to go out for delivery to several South Auckland schools.
Award-winning chef Michael Meredith – who has a stake in the business – is amongst the action, as is the Weekly's Food Editor Nici Wickes. Twice a week, Nici fights the urge to hit the snooze button when her alarm goes off in the early hours, and joins the team to volunteer. Run out of the home of founder Lisa King, the idea behind the business is simple, yet smart. For a $10 fee, you can buy lunch to be delivered to your workplace, and the programme then gifts a lunch box to a child who would otherwise go hungry. It's a buy one-give one deal. The two lunches differ to provide a kid-friendly meal with sandwiches, cut vegetables and a home-baked treat, while Michael and the team create a "buy" box that could give any Auckland-based café a run for its money.
For Michael, who balances the early starts with late nights at his Mt Eden restaurant Meredith's, the decision to join the business was easy. The father of three girls says that although his busy schedule is tiring, it's all made worthwhile when he pulls up to the schools in his delivery van.
"That's the most rewarding part," he tells. "Seeing their faces and interacting with them, that's the best."
Michael says watching the kids learn about food as they discover new tastes has been a real highlight. "They're so used to high sugar and fat foods, because those are often the cheapest options. I watched some of the kids eat cherry tomatoes for the first time and you could see it all on their faces, 'Oh man, what is this?!' – but a few weeks later, they're telling their friends to try them and are raving about carrots!"
Our Food Editor Nici has been getting up at the crack of dawn to join award-winning chef Michael Meredith and the Eat My Lunch crew to make lunches for hungry donors and schoolchildren.
Nici joined as one of the 35 volunteers currently working for the company after deciding that she'd like to add something else to her already quite full plate.
"A friend told me Michael really needed some help, so I sent him a text message and he shot straight back with 'Yes, turn up Tuesday and Wednesday next week at 6am!' So here I am."
Nici says that she feels compelled to do something to help the younger generation get ahead. "I don't have kids, so for me, I feel it's important because, as clichéd as it is, they really are the future of our country."
The foodie says she really feels for the kids, as well as their parents who are working hard, but often unable to provide lunch for their children. "It's not fair. Maybe Mum or Dad isn't there in the morning to make lunch, or maybe there's just no food in the cupboards. It's hard for the parents and hard for the kids. Have you ever tried not eating for a day? Your brain goes wobbly, you really can't think, your emotions go all over the show and if you combine that with kids trying to sit down and learn, it's just terrible."
Nici says she loves being able to make a difference, but is quick to explain the realities of being a volunteer.
"Often people think that when you're a volunteer, you always want to do it and you love it the whole time, like you're some sort of angel!" she laughs. "But when my alarm goes off, I'm not going, 'Oh yay!' I'm going, 'Oh, groan. Do I have to go do this?' However, once I get here, it's fantastic."
Michael agrees, saying you need to be motivated to keep turning up every day. "If you do any kind of volunteer work, once or twice, it's a feel-good thing," he says.
"But beyond that, you have to make a commitment."
And their dedication is paying off. Since opening in June, Eat My Lunch had, within three weeks, hit the targets they projected to reach in a year. But growing so quickly has meant the volume of lunches being prepared is getting much too big for a home kitchen.
The team is now fundraising to allow them to cater for the increasing demand, and to ensure they can deliver more "give" lunches to hungry children. They're aiming for a target of $200,000, which will allow them to rent out a new space with commercial equipment for three months and add more delivery vehicles.
Michael says beyond that, he'd love to open up the space at night to run cooking classes for underprivileged kids. "It's all about education about food," he says. "Going to the schools, it hit me – I'm very conscious that there is something we can do to help."

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