Thursday 12 March this year marks International School Meals Day – an opportunity to highlight the importance of school meals in education, and to raise awareness of the hunger and poverty issues being addressed through school feeding programmes.
For Bakery chain Greggs, serving its community is something that has been a part of its sense of purpose since the 1940s when John Gregg was delivering eggs and yeast on a bike around the streets of Newcastle. When his son, Ian, took over the business in the 1960s, he was conscious that it would only succeed if it was seen as a force for good in the communities that it operated in, and he started running pie and pea suppers for local pensioners.
“He is a man who lives by the old mantra of treat others as you’d want to be treated,” says Richard Hutton, Finance Director at Greggs.
School meals – particularly breakfasts – have been on the firm’s agenda now for over twenty years, since launching the Greggs Breakfast Club Programme in 1999 –through which it provides fresh bread to children in schools all over the country.
Supported by the Greggs Foundation and a network of 98 partners, the programme is set up with one fundamental principle: that a child who is hungry is unlikely to learn.
Levelling the playing field
This issue first came to the attention of Greggs in 1999, when then Chief Executive Sir Michael Darrington took part in an initiative run by Business in the Community called Seeing is Believing – which takes business leaders into communities to see how they can help with social issues. Sir Michael visited West Walker Primary School in the east end of Newcastle, where the headteacher was concerned about the impact that hunger was having on the children’s ability to learn. At the time, they were looking to raise £500 each term to provide breakfasts for children. That was enough to purchase the food, volunteers from the school community then came on board to serve simple breakfasts – cereal and toast. The impact was immediate, with an upturn in behaviour, punctuality and attendance.
“Mike was so struck by this,” says Hutton, “that he came back and asked me and his PA at the time, Lynn, to look into trying it out in a couple more schools.”
From there the programme grew, providing breakfasts to more schools until today, with 542 schools currently catered for, and another 300-plus on the waiting list.
“It’s about trying to level the playing field so that those kids have as good a chance as any other of succeeding in these formative years when they’re at primary school,” adds Hutton.
Simple but effective
What makes the Greggs Breakfast Club programme sustainable is its simplicity. Apart from two Breakfast Club Managers – one in the South and one in the North – and its administrative support, Greggs provides the bread, while the front-line staffing is arranged by the schools via their own staff or community volunteers. That leaves milk, cereal, juice, fruit and other elements – which altogether costs around 25p per child.
When the programme first began, the initial fund-raising came via charitable events and donations organised by employees. And while those elements still exist, the majority of that cost is now covered by the programme’s supporters, which come from a broad range of British businesses and individuals.
“We wouldn’t have been able to get as far as we have today, had it not been by developing those partnerships,” says Hutton. “The CBI is a supporter, for example. And at annual dinners, we typically have a raffle. People put £10 or £20 in the jar and it’s enough to keep a couple of schools going for another year. It’s a relatively efficient thing to do, costing just under £2,000 for partners to support a school of about 50 children for a whole year.”
That simplicity combined with the low cost for those supporting organisations means that it provides an interesting opportunity for a business that wants to start engaging with its local community.
“It’s quite an easy first step for them,” adds Hutton. “Because it’s not hugely expensive, there’s a very obvious impact, and the Foundation has a team of experts who can help hold their hand through the process.”
The programme has ambitions of reaching 1,000 schools in the next five years, and its partnerships with 100 or so supporting firms have a big part to play in achieving that. Firms that, aside from breakfasts, provide opportunities to learn about the businesses themselves – with visits to anything from recycling centres and car dealerships to egg producers and City trading floors. One group of children even went to the Bank of England to visit Governor, Mark Carney. “That was a big trip for the kids in the northeast,” adds Hutton. “They loved it.”
Playing to strengths
Many businesses are willing to engage with their local communities, but how does a business decide on what that engagement would be? For Richard Hutton at Greggs, the advice is to play to strengths – “Some things can’t be done with just money. The opportunity is to think about the special skills a business has, and how it could apply them. For us in the food business, tackling food poverty feels like a purposeful thing to do. Lots of people have volunteering programmes but to be able to use your skills from the industry you work in, potentially can be even more valuable to the communities around you.”
Investing in those communities is something that Greggs sees as a long-term investment that reaches back to those first pie and pea suppers set up by Ian Gregg in the 1960s. “Ian’s got this phrase: ‘enlightened self-interest,’” adds Hutton. “And if he was describing it, he’d say – ‘it’s how I wanted to go about our business, but it was also good for the business.’ And if it builds stronger communities, that’s good for the long term. If it engages your staff in a way that they feel good about working for the business, they are more likely to be supportive of each other, and ultimately deliver great customer service. If you do that, you’ve got a strong business.”