Franchising in Your Community March/April 2021

Giving Back: Nourishing the Community

The Lunch Lady adapts its focus from feeding students to feeding those in need during the COVID-19 pandemic

By Stefanie Ucci

Since 1993, The Lunch Lady has been a dedicated healthy food provider that has traditionally served hot and high-quality lunches to kids at school. Today, the franchise is shifting its focus to become a healthy community provider serving meals to kids at school and childcare centres, families at home, and those in need in our communities.

Founder Ruthie Burd started The Lunch Lady with the first kitchen located in Markham, Ontario. She says the brand’s unique community-minded values are essential to their business.

“Our brand has always attracted franchise partners who both want to make a difference in their communities and serve kids healthy foods,” says Burd. “So right off the bat, they’re already interested in kids’ nutrition, food, and making life easier for busy families.”

While the brand is known for hot lunches for school kids, when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in 2020, they had to shift to a different direction.

“The pandemic has been really hard on The Lunch Lady. We’re school food providers primarily, our secondary business is childcare, and with the onset of the pandemic, we lost all of our business,” explains Burd. “It’s been very disruptive, but out of disruption, once you accept that things may never be the same as they were, can come innovation and change.”

Burd says she always aimed to become a community food partner and not just a school lunch provider, and with schools closed for months during the pandemic, she has taken this opportunity to push this forward.

“Once we got over the initial shock, there were practical considerations. What to do with food sitting in fridges and freezers and how were we going to manage missed lunches as a result of the closures. Early on, our kitchens started reaching out to local food banks. Some foods, however, were not suitable to go to the food bank, so some of our kitchens started preparing meals for frontline workers and others in need in the community,” says Burd.

As the pandemic continued, preordered lunches were cancelled monthly, creating credits in customer accounts. Burd says she and her team already knew their community of parents was generous, so they asked parents to consider donating some of their credits to feed someone in need in the community. “We started a “Donate A Meal” program on our system, partnering with our parents to deliver a balanced hot meal for every $5 that was donated, and thousands of dollars were raised. We became involved with many community agencies, providing meals for the homeless, kids in need, and local women’s shelters. We saw a need and started building a program around it.”

The Lunch Lady’s charitable efforts began in 2011, Burd explains, when The Lunch Lady partnered with children’s charity, Breakfast for Learning (BFL). This ran until 2016 and offered parents the opportunity to make a small contribution to help feed another child when they ordered lunch for their own child.

“I think our parents felt good supporting the community this way. Little acts of kindness can make a big difference over time. Our experience with BFL led us to set up our own charity, the Lunch Lady Foundation, to carry on this work going forward,” says Burd.

Despite the many challenges The Lunch Lady has faced this past year, Burd continues to look on the bright side, focusing on how the brand can further adapt its core programs, grow, and do more good.

The Lunch Lady Foundation is now a fully registered Canadian charity and individuals can donate to their community of choice and get an immediate tax receipt for donations over $20.00.

Progress isn’t easy, especially during such a difficult year, and Burd notes that while it’s challenging to make such big changes, it’s necessary if the Lunch Lady Brand is to remain relevant and evolve.

Burd concludes, “The pandemic has been unbelievably disruptive, and we will never be quite the same. However, surviving COVID-19 and expanding our offerings will help us be stronger when school delivery returns. The stronger we are, the better able we will be to meet everyone’s needs both inside the classroom and out in the community.”