How Pioneer Foods Started Giving 26,000 Children Breakfast Every Day

In this interview, Devendri Adari (Group Sustainability Manager for Pioneer Foods) shares how they strategically derived the Schools Breakfast Nutrition Programme as a way of addressing the SDG of eradicating hunger. She also shares how their dedication to partnering with local communities and government was instrumental to its success.

1) The Schools Breakfast Nutrition Programme has been a successful CSI initiative for Pioneer Foods. How did you decide on launching this particular programme?

Pioneer Foods is a food manufacturing company with the mission to nourish lives with trusted, well-loved brands, thereby empowering families to get more out of life. Everything we do as a company is linked to this imperative, and when we realised that our CSI programme consisted mostly of small, ad hoc programmes, we decided to step up and put together a strategically-aligned programme that links the National Development Plan and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that assist in addressing real socio-economic issues within South Africa.

Statistics show that 53 children under the age of 5 die every day in South Africa, with malnutrition being  the key factor. As a food production company, we wanted to act and be part of the solution to this crisis.

2) You started the Schools Breakfast Nutrition Programme three years’ ago. What has been some of its successes?

We specifically wanted to pay attention to rural areas, because generally urban areas have easier access to resources and funding, so our efforts have been focused on schools in Upington, Tubatse, Rustenburg, Pietermaritzburg, Qwaqwa and Oudtshoorn.

Since we started three years’ ago, we have served over 13 million meals! We currently provide over 26,000 learners with breakfast every day at 30 schools located across six of the provinces. This initiative has also created employment for mothers who prepare the food at the schools every day, and six coordinators who focus on maintaining relationships with the schools within each of the provinces and manage the implementation of the breakfast programme on the ground.

3) What key factors influenced the implementation of this programme?

Of course it made strategic sense to align our efforts with the SDG of “No Hunger”, but later we realised that this programme aligned with many of the other SDGs as well, for example “Quality Education”, since a hungry child cannot concentrate properly at school. We also realised that we would rather provide support to and amplify the impact of other existing programmes, than re-invent the wheel. Therefore we decided to partner with schools that already have lunch programmes funded by government because they already have relevant systems and processes in place.

We started with engaging the Department of Basic Education, specifically the team that runs the National Schools Nutrition Programme (NSNP), since we had to make sure we meet their requirements. We also had to stay within a certain radius of a local Pioneer Foods bakery, depot or distribution centre. Although our focus is on rural areas, the programme needed to make sense in terms of logistics because we wanted to make sure that the bulk of the budget went to the children, and not to the behind-the-scenes management. We also had to be smart in how we engaged our own internal business units to keep costs down and create strategic synergy.

4) What has been some of the challenges and how were these addressed?

During the initial roll-out of the programme there were many incidents of theft at various schools because a few local residents saw the food stock as a soft target. Obviously we worked together with the principals to implement better security measures, but the main breakthrough came as the local community realised that those committing the break-ins were actually “stealing from their own children”. Among themselves they started to enforce an unwritten code that this was not acceptable, and I’m happy to report that we’ve had no such incidents in the last year.

Due to the fact that the participating schools are located in rural areas, most of them did not have proper storage facilities for stock, so we had issues with rodents getting into the products. Food hygiene is absolutely vital though, and our coordinators worked with the schools and the NSNP to build or get access to the required infrastructure.

Of course there were and still are daily operational challenges. However, we found that if all stakeholders involved – including government, the local community and internal Pioneer Foods business units – have a sense of ownership of the programme, we find ways of making it work. Always have a Plan B in your back pocket!

5) How do you measure the impact of the Schools Breakfast Nutrition Programme?

We’ve been measuring the impact of the programme informally by regularly meeting with the principals and teachers. Their feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, with the main improvements being an overall increase in school attendance, a reduction in absenteeism due to illness and positive behavioural change. Together these improvements have had a big impact on the academic performance of the learners.

Our first formal impact assessment by an external company is currently underway, now that we have enough data to enable useful conclusions.

6) What has been the impact of this programme on Pioneer Foods as a business?

Well, on a smaller scale we use feedback from this programme to provide insights to our marketing team in terms of product development.

On a large scale, it was always our strategic intent that the programme would provide increased visibility of Pioneer Foods in the local communities, build a strong emotional connection with our customers and by extension create brand loyalty. This links back to opening up new markets and building a profitable business, which in turn means more budget can flow to the programme, driving a positive impact in all directions.

7) What would be your advice to other businesses looking to launch their own CSI initiatives?

Any partnership depends on intentionally building the relationship – it will be as easy or as difficult as you make it, depending on the quality of your stakeholder relationships.

And, if you want to be part of the story, be part of a story that has purpose.

See more on Pioneer Foods’ Sustainability initiatives here.