Joanna Wane meets the Beyonce of Eat My Lunch
It's the dark hour before dawn, the wrong end of the day for nightclubbing, but "DJ Heeks" is on fire. "Thank you so much for coming in today. You can call me Beyonce. I know it's a bit early, but we've got some lit-as music and after the magic, I'll make some amazing coffee. So don't worry, I've got you."
Someone give this girl her own stand-up show. Hika Perez has been up since 4am and is working the room like a pro, busting out dance moves in her kitchen apron and double-layered hairnet. The 25-year-old was in fact offered a drama scholarship from high school but turned it down. She travelled to Europe, volunteered at an orphanage in India, and became a youth worker instead.
This Monday morning, Perez is the warm-up act at an inner-city warehouse on Galatos St where I'm among a dozen or so volunteers who've arrived for the early-morning shift at Eat My Lunch. By midday, almost 1000 sandwiches will have been made and delivered across Auckland as part of the company's "buy one, give one" school lunch programme.
There were supposed to be twice that many of us but Covid forced a corporate group to pull out at the last minute. Perez, the "Give" co-ordinator, spent Sunday night ringing around to drum up some replacements.
We're all relieved when three students from Dio turn up. At times over the next few hours the task seems gargantuan as slices of wholemeal bread are laid out in vast rows to be buttered, layered with ham and lettuce, cut, wrapped and zip-locked into a compostable bag with a cookie and piece of fruit. The Auckland team and a smaller number of volunteers in Wellington power through more than 400 loaves a week.
Early last year, Perez (she's Tokelauan but her great-great-grandfather was Portuguese) moved back up from New Plymouth, where she was doing community work with high-school students. On top of her staff job at Eat My Lunch, she's studying full-time at AUT for a Bachelor of Communications degree.
From a troubled family background, she'd lose herself in books as a coping mechanism when things got tough at home. "My dad was violent, my mum was all over the place. Books were my way of forgetting. I'd put myself in a different world. It was either that or drinking. I needed to break the family chain, so I told myself, 'It's got to stop with me.'"
So Perez can relate to those kids who turn up to school with empty stomachs. And with Covid, she says, even high-decile areas have some families who are struggling. "School is where kids don't have to face the drama at home; the last thing they should have to worry about is having lunch."
I'd first looked at doing some volunteering a couple of years ago after my job disappeared in the first Covid lockdown, but close-contact work with vulnerable communities meant groups like Auckland City Mission weren't taking people on. A few months later, I joined Canvas and got swept back into the whirl of working life and parenting, navigating a world that's felt increasingly grim and frayed around the edges over the past year.
I'd heard about Eat My Lunch co-founder Michael Meredith, the Samoa-born chef, and his support of the Fred Hollows Foundation in the Pacific Islands, where Type 2 diabetes is the main cause of blindness. Also, I'm not good in the mornings (yes, I know, check my privilege) and we live just a few kilometres away. So, when the volunteer programme re-opened for Term Two, I signed on.
It's pitch-black when I arrive at 6.15am, but staff like Perez have already been on site for a couple of hours. Later, I'll glance up and see the sky turning pink through the high warehouse windows. Masks, gloves, hairnets and aprons are distributed and we're split into groups along a series of long stainless steel benches.
Three of the women I'm teamed up with work for an anti-money laundering tech firm; another is a corporate executive on a paid "volunteer leave" day. "There's no five-second rule here," Perez tells us. "Whatever food you drop on the ground, kick it under the table. We'll clean it up later."
Upstairs, on the mezzanine floor, her desk is covered with multicoloured sticky notes. As well as managing the volunteer roster for making lunches and doing the delivery run, she's also the school liaison, fielding requests to join the waiting list or increase an order. A total of 47 schools and three educational organisations are already signed on, and each of them specify the number of lunches they need, from as few as 15 a day to more than 100.
Eat My Lunch is not a charity but a for-profit business that operates as a social enterprise, dedicating a certain percentage of those profits to its BOGO (buy one, give one) programme. For every meal a customer orders through the website, a more modest school lunch goes to "a Kiwi kid in need" — more than 1.7 million of them since Meredith and entrepreneur Lisa King launched the company seven years ago. You can also directly gift lunches at a cost of $5 each.
Around 160 staff are on the payroll, including a team based at East Tāmaki, where 16,000 daily lunches are made on contract for government-funded schools under the new Ka Ora, Ka Ako initiative. The company has also partnered with the Ministry of Social Development to make up food boxes for people isolating with Covid-19.
The use of volunteer labour to make lunches for the "give" schools, which don't qualify for state funding, has been controversial. Eat My Lunch doesn't get tax breaks as a charity does but it's a commercial operation with shareholders (including Foodstuffs) and won't say how much each donated lunch costs or what proportion of its profits is dedicated to that side of the business.
General manager Kellie Burbidge says the concept was to create a sustainable business that doesn't rely on the vagaries of funding, however the model doesn't work without volunteers. When the programme was suspended this year due to Covid restrictions, weekly food boxes were delivered to schools for assembly on site.
"The need is even greater now and those who have been lucky or privileged enough to survive Covid want to give back and do something to help," says Burbidge. "What I've seen is the wider pulling-together of the community to look after each other and I think that's really fantastic."
On my second shift, two days later, there was a much bigger group of 31 volunteers — from corporate groups to university students — and we finished an hour earlier. I was on butter and did the South Auckland school run as far out as Papakura, more than 30km away.
It's scientifically proven, apparently, that volunteering, or performing acts of kindness towards others, makes us happier. The NZ Heart Foundation says having a sense of purpose is associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and a 2013 American study showed people who volunteered were less likely to have high blood pressure.
A report by Volunteering NZ found numbers initially dropped away at the beginning of the pandemic, while demand for services rose, but younger volunteers have stepped up to fill the gap.
For me, hopefully this is just the beginning. I'm painfully aware how little I've contributed so far and how much more is done every day by so many others. In the meantime, as DJ Heeks would say, the least we can do is make the sandwiches with love.
GIVING A LITTLE
* New Zealand is ranked third in the 2022 "Most Charitable Countries" index, which measures donations, helping strangers and time volunteered.
* Statistics NZ estimates that Kiwis contribute around 159 million hours of formal volunteer labour annually, at a value of $4 billion a year.
* June 19-25 is National Volunteer Week. To get involved, visit nationalvolunteerweek.nz