Getting Stuffed for Good
Wednesday, 18th September 2013 at 11:36 am
In this week’s Spotlight on Social Enterprise, Nadia Boyce reports on an emerging social enterprise that has hedged its bets on digital innovation, producing apps to fund programs creating positive experiences with food for Australian youth.
The Big Feed tagline invites people to “get stuffed for good” by getting disadvantaged young people into the kitchen with confidence.
Nine years ago founder Kay Richardson gave up her job as an accountant to establish the Children’s Food Education Foundation, which was later transformed into The Big Feed, operating with a profit-for-purpose model.
Profits from e-resources and food and beverage products offered by The Big Feed allow the enterprise to develop educational tools, run cooking classes, and provide mentoring and work experience opportunities in food vocations.
Richardson says a specific aim is to bring normalcy and positivity back to daily interaction with food for young people whose lives have been disrupted, something most of us take for granted, she adds.
A two year program with Youth on the Streets in NSW saw the organisation observe how youth engaged with food. Now The Big Feed aims to work alongside other youth charities who have a role in teaching disadvantaged young people basic living skills.
Richardson says the program allows charities to focus on the primary goals of their work.
“I’ve dealt with people across mental health, drug and alcohol services. Quite rightly they concentrate on the issues at hand. That is where our gap is.”
“We can come in and say, ‘you don’t have to worry about that.’”
Richardson says the world of food can be an unexpected stumbling block for some young people.
“When you have a young person without literacy, they can’t just look up a recipe and know what a ‘tbsp’ is.”
Mainstream food media also makes cooking and food vocations quite intimidating, she adds. “They watch shows like Masterchef and think ‘I can’t do that.”
Part of The Big Feed’s aim is therefore also about empowerment in a career sense, she says.
“We show them that if you’ve got all these skills you can do all these things too.”
Hungry for Digital
The needs of The Big Feed’s target market have driven the organisation to innovate and embrace digital technologies in pursuing their social goals.
“We’re very firmly targeting e-learning and online resources”, she says. “We’ve found that young people will have a smartphone no matter the circumstances.”
“We’re on youtube, we’re on Google hangouts, we want to go where the kids are at.”
‘The Big Feed App’ is available on iTunes and is used as a teaching tool in cooking classes and by charity partners when they work with young people.
Richardson says the potential of apps far outstrips what can be offered in a standard online document.
“The intent was to create an app as a potential revenue stream.”
“The idea behind the app is that for $1.50 people can get $50 thousand worth of value, which is what it took to compile and create everything in it.”
But taking a digitally innovative route hasn’t been easy, she says.
“It’s been a barrier if anything. With the people in the sector, technology can sometimes intimidate. There are many in the field not necessarily getting their heads around it.”
“Once they get shown, that changes. We’ll go in and talk to them about how e-resources are easy to use and relevant.”
The feedback from the Big Feed’s young charges suggests the organisation may have a recipe for success.
“They’ve downloaded the app by the time we’ve finished the sentence,” she says. ‘They were posting pictures of the day on Facebook within an hour.”
Technology use has also enabled the Big Feed to track its social impact.
“Social impact for us is around engagement,” she says. “We know we’ve been successful if engage young people and they carry things through, if we hear back or see them posting pictures online of activities they’ve done.”
The First Ingredients
Now trading as the Big Feed, the organisation eventual transformation to a social enterprise was sparked by the global rise of the model and an internal decision to create a sellable brand, growing the foundation’s work and supporting it with products and resources.
“We set it up like that so we could see which niche we fit into”, she says. “We had an offering and we wanted to find a brand to wrap up that offering.”
“‘Children’s Food Education Foundation’ was a mouthful and not relevant or interesting to a young person”, she says. “We’re treating it like a brand.”
“We’ve found that we could probably be of the best service to the sector. We’re coming in as a value add. That’s what we’re doing differently.”
“The main challenge has been coming up with a business idea that also speaks to our main charitable purpose,” she says.
Richardson notes that The Big Feed differs from many other social enterprises that provide targeted employment opportunities where the operation of the enterprise achieves the social good.
Conversely, the profitable aspect of The Big Feed is solely to financially support the secondary activities undertaken to achieve the social aims.
“We need to sustain ourselves and we’re doing that by producing food products and e-resources. We’ve got to be selling stuff in order to do good deeds,” she says.
The team’s capability in business has been of great value in the early stages, she say.
“My board and people around it are all business people. It makes it easier to attract people. It also helps to have contacts in the industry.”
Too many cooks…?
The ratio of volunteers to paid employees varies widely in the social enterprise space.
The Big Feed is currently supported a team of around 50 volunteers, many food professionals, including food stylists, food media and food photographers.
Richardson says it is not sustainable.
“Because we’re volunteer based things are always tempered by what people can do in the time we have.
”We need to attract a high calibre and we can’t rely on volunteers. But with no funding, we have to.”
Volunteers may not have the skills required to deal with food safety issues, such as those that arise dealing with people affected by drugs or mental illness, Richardson says.
“You’re not about to give them a chef’s knife.” she says, adding that all recipes in the resources provided can be made without knifes.
Hopes to move from a volunteer base to a number of paid employees have been put on hold.
“Naively we set out and thought this’d be a great idea but shifting sands and the global financial crisis means there is not much funding around.
“We wanted to be national, we wanted to be digital, and straight away!”
More seed for The Big Feed
Richardson is realistic but enthused about the future of The Big Feed.
“We are a small entity and its very hard to get funding. Without massive publicity you just don’t get that cut through,” she says.
“Social procurement for us will be a big thing.”
At the moment the focus is on securing more seed funding, but Richardson has lots of plans in the kitchen.
A long term vision, she says, includes an online food marketplace, enabling kids to become their own mini food distributor, along with more food products and resources.
Expanding product lines to create more revenue streams will allow the current programs to grow, she says.
“We’re not going to make a million out of an app, but we can sell food products.”
“We really want to create a business. A real business.”