Lisa King isn’t out to change the whole world, but she is definitely changing the worlds of kids from some of our poorest families.
The founder of Eat My Lunch, along with award-winning restaurateur Michael Meredith, is up to her elbows in beetroot, carrot and bread when the Weekly catches up with her.
The sun’s just peeping over the horizon and she and a team of volunteers are already 30 minutes into the three-hour daily slog of buttering, topping and wrapping lunches for pupils at 32 low decile Auckland schools. That’s something like 1300 lunches!
But it doesn’t stop there – there’s another 1200-plus to prepare for the customers supporting the “buy one, give one” social enterprise. And from this month, another army of volunteers will be doing the same, albeit on a slightly smaller scale, in Wellington.
Though the EML crew always planned to launch in another city, the expansion into the capital has come sooner than they expected.
“We’ve had so many requests from people to set up in Wellington,” says Lisa.
Logistics means they will initially deliver to only two schools – Holy Cross School in Miramar and Kahurangi School in Strathmore, a suburb where one of the country’s top private boys’ schools, Scots College, sits alongside ‘60s state houses.
“There’s a mix of families from all sorts of backgrounds and many are struggling,” tells Lisa as she preps the first of the morning’s sandwiches.
Holy Cross principal Celeste Hastings said the school thought long and hard about their involvement in the scheme, as they didn’t want to take away from others in greater need.
“However, we said yes because we believe it is a wonderful way to support families in need for short periods of time.”
The venture’s success has been meteoric. It was launched after a few glasses of wine in June last year following a discussion Lisa and her business partner Iaan Buchanan had about feeling somehow implicit in the obese-ification of New Zealand. Both were working in corporate food marketing roles.
They pitched the idea to Michael – whose upbringing mirrors that of many of the kids benefiting from the scheme – and he was in.
Within two weeks, they were churning out 400 lunches a day from the couple’s kitchen; within three months, they’d exceeded their 12 month forecasts and the tally now sits at over 500,000.
“When we started, we thought we’d be doing about 50 lunches a day,” laughs Lisa. “And Michael reckoned we’d never do more than 200 out of that kitchen. It’s really just captured people’s hearts. There has been unimaginable support.”
That’s surely quite an understatement when Eat My Lunch’s backers include famous Kiwi faces such as pop sensation Lorde and social entrepreneur Derek Handley, the Kiwi behind The B Team, a leadership collective he helped create with Sir Richard Branson.
But just as important to Lisa are the thousands of customers, and volunteers – 2000 so far – without whose support the concept may not have gotten off the ground.
“Kiwis are super-generous and Eat My Lunch has become an easy, tangible way for people to give back,” she says.
As with any charity, Eat My Lunch has its critics, with some arguing that feeding a child is the responsibility of the parent. However, Derek points out that around 29 per cent of Kiwi kids live in poverty.
“Clearly we have thousands of kids going to school without lunch, not well-fed,” he says.
Backing the concept was a no-brainer: “One outcome we hope for is healthier, better educated, happy young Kiwis.”
For Lisa, there are other factors to consider.
“As a parent, I feel strongly that education equals opportunity. It’s not about solving the issue of poverty, but about giving kids the opportunity to learn so they can break out of that cycle. We want to empower these kids and we all know you can’t learn when you’re hungry.”
And that’s where nutrition comes in. Any number of studies show its effect on educational achievement, so while the lunches include a treat – perhaps a gingerbread man or Anzac biscuit – there’s always fresh salad ingredients or fruit.
“I’ve seen some kids, when they’ve first eaten a carrot stick, holding their noses,” tells Lisa. “Two weeks later, it’s the first thing they eat.”
With her hands full and not just with the business but as mum to Ella (9) and seven-year-old Toby, you’d imagine Lisa might not be overly enthusiastic when it comes to feeding her own family. Not so.
“I love food and cooking. My parents were Chinese immigrants, they opened a restaurant here, so food – and entrepreneurship, I guess – has always been a big part of my life.
“I remember Dad would come home at midnight and cook us noodles. That was him showing he loved us.”
Words: Julie Jacobson