Inspired by Deborah Manning of FoodShare

Inspired by Deborah Manning, written by CHIA blogger Anna Watson

The journey to combating food waste

Deborah started out her career as a physiotherapist, went on to study law and spent several years working as a lawyer. But life had yet another opportunity waiting just around the corner. Deborah was reading the newspaper one day. On one page was a story about kids going hungry at school, while another column profiled ‘dumpster divers’ living off food thrown away by supermarkets and destined for landfill.

“[I saw] the challenge to build a business that used an environmental problem to solve a social problem. The opportunity to make a difference in my community and perhaps my country was hard to resist.”

This opportunity kickstarted Deborah’s new career as a social entrepreneur. The equivalent of 20 million loaves of bread is thrown into rubbish bins uneaten every year. She decided to bridge the dumpster-sized gap between wasted food and hungry families in her hometown, Dunedin. Four years on, FoodShare has recently celebrated its one millionth rescued meal going back into the wider Dunedin community.

Like I said, stories about ex-lawyers are great.

Deborah’s toolkit of past experience

Deborah’s previous work experience has been integral to the success of her current venture. She identifies several key skills that have been key to getting her social business off the ground. “The ability to create and maintain positive relationships with all people I interact with is very important. Appreciating the motivations and perspectives of our stakeholders helps shape the direction of our efforts.”

Deborah’s past experience as a lawyer is also on point when it comes to strategic thinking; “anticipating what the future might hold and setting goals that are bigger than our current capacity helps grow the business and makes the goals a reality.”Risk analysis is essential in any business, and lawyers are arguably better than most at attacking this side of things. And as Deborah points out, risk assessment is particularly important when dealing with perishable food: “identifying key areas of risk, its likelihood and potential impact allows us to develop policies, procedures and guidelines to minimise and manage them.”

1 June 2016: Foodshare. Deborah Manning CEO of Foodshare in the Dunedin Foodshare base where volunteers sort boxes of food. Photo Sharron Bennett

Inspiring the inspirer

A social business which has impressed Deborah recently is Farmhand, a Dunedin-based training programme which works with rangatahi to actively address the correlation between education, empowerment and food security.

Not one to miss an opportunity, Deborah has formed a collaborative relationship with Farmhand youth. The result is “the development of ‘food skills’ educational resources – aimed to maximise the benefit of fresh food though printed materials and practical workshops.”

On running a charitable venture

Deborah sees her social business as any other business. It must cover costs; be clear on branding to successfully deliver on its objectives; and find additional revenue to grow. But a social business perhaps has a greater challenge on that last point. According to Deborah, balancing our social purpose with the financial bottom line is always a challenge.”

As any budding entrepreneur will know, undercapitalised businesses fail. Deborah’s solution? “We offer opportunities for our stakeholders to engage in the work we do and create lasting positive effects for the marginalised in our society.” These opportunities can come in the form of sponsorship, food donation or corporate partnerships.

So what’s next?

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Deborah is looking at breaking new ways to curb the food waste in her community: “we are currently looking into the feasibility of establishing a separate business arm which will provide income for the business while delivering additional social benefits to those in the community.”

But Deborah isn’t stopping there. The national cost of residential food waste dumped in landfills during 2014 and 2015 was $872 million; figures are not available for commercial food waste. The way to address such unnecessary food waste? “We will work with all stakeholders including central and local governments, nongovernmental organisations, community-based organisations, education providers, local business and individuals to collectively solve the food waste crisis.”