Joining forces to take school children from seed to supermarketPublished: December 2017
Stephanie Wood knew Whole Foods Market would be the ideal partner for her charity — but even she was surprised by how quickly things took off. Within minutes of her introduction email, the organic and natural foods retailer responded, suggesting a meeting.
Wood is the founder and CEO of School Food Matters, a U.K. charity that aims to ensure that every child enjoys fresh, sustainable food at school and understands where their food comes from. The charity does both campaigning and food education.
The partnership born from that first contact in early 2013 became Schools to Market, an enterprise programme for primary and secondary school children. Pupils visit farms, grow food, turn the produce into jams and chutneys and then sell them outside Whole Foods stores in London, Giffnock (Scotland) and Cheltenham (southwest England). To date 2,000 children have visited a farm and over 40,000 have been directly or indirectly involved as gardeners, chefs, mini marketers and market traders in the project, not to mention parents and consumers. In 2017, the partnership won a Charity Times award that recognized its lasting positive impact on local communities.
A nimble partnership
Wood attributes the speedy new relationship partly to timing: Whole Kids Foundation, a charitable arm of Whole Foods (alongside its Whole Planet Foundation and Whole Cities Foundation), was well established in the U.S. at the time but keen to grow its presence in Britain. Whole Kids Foundation’s U.K. lead was excited by School Food Matters’ goals, says Wood, and after brainstorming ideas together at their initial meeting, the charity came back with a detailed proposal.
Again, timing was favourable. Whole Foods was about to open a new U.K. store in Richmond in southwest London, and wanted a hook for the launch. The new Schools to Market project was piloted there with eight schools in September 2013, then opened up to all nine stores in the U.K., with 36 schools participating.
In the first year Whole Foods was “really ambitious,” involving numerous team members in running the programme, says Wood, “but in year two we took stock and decided to lighten the load for them.” So School Food Matters took on all management tasks, with Whole Foods team members getting involved when time allowed. The partners also decided to work in the U.K.’s five largest stores only, where participating schools — in 2017, a total of 20 — have more space to set up stalls for their products.
“The key is being nimble. We try things out, learn lessons and keep developing our programme year on year,” says Wood. “That’s the beauty of a small charity — you’re able to do that.”
Investing in schools
School Food Matters has worked with other partners on education projects and a key lesson has been the need for investing in thorough project management.
The charity forms close relationships with schools to make sure they get the most out of the Schools to Market programme. That takes time. “We have a school liaison officer whose job is to support, cajole, encourage and inspire,” explains Wood. “If you don’t do this hand holding and proper project management, programmes just won’t fly.”
Alongside this ongoing support, the charity provides participating schools with an introduction session, a masterclass in chutney making, a trip to a “pick your own” farm, a mini marketing workshop and a garden kit containing organic vegetable plants.
One reason Whole Foods has stuck with School Food Matters for nearly five years, Wood believes, is because they can channel it through a charitable foundation. (Whole Kids Foundation’s mission is “to support schools and inspire families to improve children’s nutrition and wellness”.) Partnerships that rest within a firm’s CSR or marketing programmes, on the other hand, can be “very vulnerable,” according to Wood, because the partner is looking for a return (financial or otherwise) on their investment.
And while they’re separate entities, “the ethos of the company and the Foundation definitely align,” says Wood. “It really does permeate through every staff member.” For example, they get involved in the company’s 5% Days, when five percent of the day’s net sales is donated to a local nonprofit or educational organization. Through Schools to Market, they also get opportunities to volunteer directly with children.
What has School Food Matters learned about partnering with a corporate firm? Good collaboration, Wood says, involves “adapting the programme year on year to make sure it meets the needs of both partners.” And, while the project was never a marketing exercise, she has realised that “you do need to give the partner some [marketing] collateral”. Case studies, photos and quotes from children help demonstrate the impact of the programme.
What about tips for pursuing new partnerships?
“Never chase the money,” advises Wood. School Food Matters gets lots of requests to collaborate and while she’s always open to an initial conversation, the founder and CEO is careful not to bend too much to a partner’s demands.
“We always go back to the mission and ask ourselves: does this align? If not, we won’t go there. We have to speak the same language. We know how schools work so it doesn’t make sense to change the way we work with them. We also have to be alert to mission creep!”
In 2010 the charity committed to moving away from 100 percent dependency on grants and now gets its income from a mix of project management or service fees from project partners, membership fees from schools, donations from the public, and grants from trusts or foundations.
The Schools to Market partnership is School Food Matters’ biggest programme to date, and income from project management fees represents a significant portion of the charity’s annual income.
Whole Kids Foundation also commissioned the charity to run its School Garden Grants programme, which offers schools in London up to £2,000 each to create or improve edible gardens in their grounds.
Since 2013 the two organizations have agreed the terms of their partnership on a year-by-year basis, allowing it to evolve as needed. In August 2017, Whole Foods Market was acquired by online shopping giant Amazon and in November announced plans to close its stores in Cheltenham and Giffnock — but Wood doesn’t necessarily see this as a threat to their “very strong” relationship. On the contrary, the massive reach of Amazon “could potentially be exciting” for the charity, she says.