Updated: Jun 5
On my way to the airport, I had butterflies in my stomach, not the ones you get when you are excited, It was hard to put my finger on what the feeling was. I suppose it was a bit of trepidation, fear of the unknown perhaps. After becoming a dad, I have noticed a few changes. In some ways I am stronger, and more disciplined. A non-foreseen side effect is that I can ‘well up’ in a cartoon kid’s movie if it pulls on the right heartstrings. I had a feeling that some strings might be tugged at on this trip.
Let me explain… I recently had the opportunity to accompany my long-time partners at Zambrero on a vision trip to South Africa. Meyer Food Co. was honoured as the supplier of the year at the most recent Zambrero conference. I, along with a dozen other award winners were invited on the vision trip to gain a deeper understanding of Zambrero's Plate 4 Plate charity. Through the program, every meal purchased at Zambrero results in a meal being donated to someone in need via their distribution partner, Rise Against Hunger. Their goal is to contribute to ending world hunger by donating one billion meals by the end of 2025 (yes, you read that right, one billion!).
Upon our arrival in Johannesburg, our team met with the dedicated Rise Against Hunger teams from Africa and the United States. We started Day 1 with a tour of the Rise Against Hunger Africa warehouse. The Africa team run a tight ship and their premises and the work they run out of it is a credit to them. We set up a line, pumped up the music, and kicked off packing meals at full speed for 67 minutes. This symbolised the 67 years of Nelson Mandela's commitment to human rights. With meals packed, and ready to be distributed we started to feel like we were a team. The nervous energy of being in a new group faded away.
That afternoon we set off on a guided tour of the famous township of Soweto, the centre of the revolution that ended apartheid. During the tour we learned about the gold rush that birthed Johannesburg, the rise and fall of apartheid, the contributions of Nelson & Winnie Mandela, and the country's struggles through different periods of rule. Interestingly, the guide also gave his own perspective on the current issues the country faces like electricity load shedding, mistrust of police, corruption, and the ever-present and infamous risk to human safety. He provided context to the hardships faced by the less fortunate residents of Johannesburg. Suffice to say, I felt a million miles away from the order and predictability of home.
In the morning we took a car ride out of the city. On either side of the freeway were sprawling townships that covered the flat landscape as far as the eye could see. A common dwelling looked like it only had a few rooms, some perhaps only one, and nothing was built over one level. Some houses were built with bricks and mortar, but most were a combination of random building materials and rusty corrugated iron.
We arrived at our first Early Childhood Development centre (ECD) named Place of Hope in Gauteng. We had the privilege of witnessing the full impact of the Plate 4 Plate charity delivered by Rise Against Hunger. Place of Hope is managed by a highly regarded woman known as "Ma" Doris who had a firm but warm persona. We loved meeting the excited kids, passing on gifts and having fun showing the kids how to use them. My fear of the unknown started to lift as we could see that the kids were happy, healthy, and smiling.
Place of Hope includes a thriving vegetable garden and 300 laying hens. Half of the produce is utilised to nourish the children in their own ECD and 6 more in their local network. The other half is sold at wholesale prices to local vendors, generating the required income to sustain the operation. The project not only provides nutrition for the children but also adds to the local economy by creating a stream of produce that can be traded. Local businesses within the community benefit too. The penny started to drop that this was about much more than simply donating meals.
At our next destination, Lakeside Primary School, we were shown both traditional and hydroponic farming projects that follow the sell-half-use-half model. However, the highlight of our visit was a loud and proud performance by the schoolchildren. They dressed in traditional colours and gave a rousing rendition of their native songs and dances. It was an unforgettable moment that vividly confirmed the power of, culture, and community in a township where poverty is the norm.
The following day, our journey led us to Diepsloot, an informal settlement characterised by extreme poverty. Diepsloot was originally established as a temporary transit camp and has grown into an overcrowded town with a population estimated to be about 150,000 residents. We drove for kilometres through dirt alleyways of makeshift houses and street stalls littered with debris and rubbish.
On arrival at Mahlasedi ECD, a Level 2 centre, we were floored by the resilience and joy exhibited by the children despite their difficult circumstances. As we milled about outside, the children’s excitement was palpable. Another unforgettable moment and yes, heartstrings were being played like a guitar. It was inspiring to witness the centre's dedicated staff making the most out of their limited resources to create a safe and nurturing environment.
We were treated to an inspiring talk from Dube, the National Operations Manager for Rise Against Hunger Africa and Calvin, his protégé, who is a Diepsloot local. After giving their own heartfelt context, they walked us through how the meal donations resulted in tangible change. After being assessed, each new ECD signs a Memorandum of Understanding with the charity. In exchange for meal donations, the ECD commits to saving the cost of the meals. Over time these savings are utilised to acquire vital items that were lacking during the assessment, such as safety equipment including fire extinguishers or basic sanitary requirements such as flushing toilets and running water. Once again, we witnessed the power of charitable efforts working hand-in-hand with commerce to create a sustainable and enduring business that can give back to the community.
Our next stop was Tanganani ECD, classified as a Level 4 centre located in a better-developed section of the Diepsloot community. The significant progress achieved by this ECD was evident in its well-maintained infrastructure, trained teachers, and the model behaviour of the children during mealtime (a sight far better than what I'm accustomed to with my own kids!). The centre showcased the transformative impact that sustained partnership and support can have. Moreover, it highlighted another crucial outcome essential for meaningful change: education. Tanganani has been able to upskill its staff through formal training for preschool teachers. This investment results in better-educated children who are more prepared for their transition into the school system, giving them the best possible chance at a brighter tomorrow. We were all in awe as we witnessed a 5-year-old girl stand up in front of our group of 20 strangers and her entire preschool to give a stirring speech about the South African flag, her country, and her school, finishing with her proclaiming loudly “I am a leader of tomorrow!”.
A meal is not just a pack of grains & dehydrated vegetables, a meal is a job for a teacher, an education for a child, an income for a street vendor, and not least a smile on the face of a leader of tomorrow.
We distributed toothbrushes, toothpaste, learning materials, and meals to the ECDs. Basic staples that we would take for granted at home. The overwhelming joy and gratitude expressed by the children and their caregivers was humbling. These simple gestures made a significant impact and provided us with a profound understanding of how fortunate we are, and how fulfilling it can be to help others.
This trip was an unforgettable experience. Having participated in numerous Plate 4 Plate meal packing events over the years, I knew that the meals were being consumed by those in need. I had no idea about the depth and breadth of the true impact these meals have when used to empower communities. The integrated approach of combining charity and commerce is brilliant. A meal is not just a pack of grains & dehydrated vegetables, a meal is a job for a teacher, an education for a child, an income for a street vendor, and not least a smile on the face of a leader of tomorrow.
Without a doubt, Zambrero’s Plate 4 Plate program and Rise Against Hunger have earned my unwavering support for life. They have shown me how compassion and commerce can unite to shape a better future. Now, my personal challenge lies in incorporating the lessons from this experience into my own corporate social responsibility efforts at Meyer Food Co.