12 May 2016
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Food Rescue Is on a Mission

Australian group rallies vendors to share their leftovers with millions of needy citizens
Re: Michael Porter
by Jill Radsken

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Photo by Lisa Saad

Success began with vegetable lentil soup.

Ian Carson (OPM 42, 2012) was fresh off volunteering in Australian politics as state president of the Liberal Party in Victoria when he was inspired to take action about food waste and hunger. He and his wife, Simone, noticed the amount of leftover food being discarded everywhere, particularly at the local Prahran market where they regularly shopped, so he researched the issue, then reached out to lend a hand.

With their three young kids, the Carsons filled the back of their Volvo station wagon with boxes of fruit and vegetables, meat, and seafood and drove it to Sacred Heart Mission in nearby St. Kilda where it became soup and solid meals for hungry families in need.

“The role of the food is not just feeding people. It also helps them get back into society,” says Carson, who cofounded SecondBite, a surplus food redistribution nonprofit, with his wife, who also attended a leadership course at HBS, in 2014. “Ninety-five percent of what we collect is fresh and nutritious. It’s not just filling the stomach.”

In the 10 years since that first delivery, SecondBite has grown to 800 volunteers who network with 1,200 agencies in even the most remote parts of the continent. The organization expects to feed 17 million meals to the country’s poorest families this year, an astounding achievement reflective of why the Carsons earned the 2015 Social Entrepreneur of the Year award from the Schwab Foundation, part of the World Economic Forum.

“The models are very powerful,” he explains. “We have trucks that do deliveries, but the innovation is in how we are able to suit local needs, with many different collection models customized for local circumstances.”

For Carson, a founder of PPB Advisory, a specialist firm that does valuations and forensic accounting, the ability to adapt to clients’ needs, especially on such an enormous scale, is crucial. He points to SecondBite’s relationship with Coles, one of Australia’s largest supermarket chains, which joined the food-reuse effort. The grocery store giant makes weekly food donations from 550 of its stores and enjoys significant employee involvement and engagement.

“People detest seeing food thrown away. Everyone gets that,” Carson says. “What we do with Coles is the best example in Australia—and probably the world—of shared value.”

Carson credits Michael Porter, the Bishop William Lawrence University professor at HBS, for the idea that an enterprise can create value that can serve a social cause as well as a business purpose. Porter’s strategy framework was but one memorable lesson that informed an empowering three years of study in the Owner/President Management program for Carson. He also found inspiration in a case study on Doug Rauch, former president of Trader Joe’s, who created a nonprofit grocery store model.

“I had been working 25 years,” Carson says, “and Harvard gave me a whole lot of different ideas, thinking, and frameworks for SecondBite and my businesses.”

Central to the food rescue is the organization’s trademarked program, Community Connect, which facilitates redistribution through volunteers and groups such as local Rotary International chapters and church organizations, which transport the food to agencies that are already cooking and feeding clients.

“Being open to different ideas is one of my strengths. I tend to see what’s possible,” Carson says. “A lot of people see the 50 steps to get somewhere. I see the goal and say, ‘We’re going there.’”

He points to another innovation created for some of Australia’s country regions. Using a single truck, SecondBite drives into a large geographical area with pick-up stops at several growers, producers, and supermarkets. Once filled, the truck goes to one central location in each rural area where shelter and food pantry representatives can take deliveries. In Colac, Victoria, for example, volunteers fill their own cars with fruits, vegetables, meat, and bread from Coles or other supermarkets and drive to their churches, where they cook a meal for neighbors in need.

“A lot of the people in shelters have had mental illness and breakdowns. They become disempowered and isolated from the community,” Carson notes. “Coming in for a meal can connect them with people and services that are provided by those missions, including counseling, job training, health workers. The food is the tip of the iceberg.”

Funding comes from individuals, corporate donations, bequests, and SecondBite’s own future trust. With 40 million meals under its belt, the national nonprofit is seeking ways to ensure its own sustainability, including a social venture called the Ugly Juice Van, which sells juices and smoothies at farmers’ markets around the country.

“We keep growing, and the hardest thing is to keep the funding up with the growth,” Carson says. “We estimate $8 billion of food is thrown out every year in Australia alone, and there are two million Australians who go without during the course of a year.

“With programs teaching people to help themselves—how to cook, how to procure healthy food—we want to break the cycle, not just perpetuate it.”

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