By Sasha Milam
“Finish your food – some kids don’t have enough to eat.” It’s a message many of us heard at the dinner table when we were young. While it might have helped some kids keep perspective and clean their plates, it had a bigger effect for Andrew Hall, BCom ’11.
When Andrew and his cousin Jeremy Bryant had the idea for their non-profit, Mealshare, they were recent graduates with good jobs at accounting firms. But despite the job security and valuable experiences they were gaining, they talked all the time about what kind of businesses they would like to start together when they went out on their own. They knew they wanted to have big impact with their careers, and they kept coming back to the question of youth hunger.
“We knew we had a cool idea with Mealshare,” Andrew says. “We wanted to turn ‘dining out’ into ‘helping out.’ We knew things could change really quickly when you have the right people working on them – look how far technology has come in just a generation or two. We concluded that there’s no reason we couldn’t eliminate youth hunger in our lifetimes.”
They decided to take action a step beyond the family dining room, by leaving their jobs and co-founding Mealshare. (BCom ’11 grad Derek Juno came on board early on, as well, and currently serves as EVP.) As a registered non-profit that partners with restaurants and local charities to provide meals for youth, the organization offers restaurant patrons the chance to provide a healthy meal to local young people who might otherwise go without.
Their success since Mealshare launched in 2013 is evident in the numbers: 1200-plus partner restaurants, in 400-plus Canadian communities, with more than 4,000,000 meals served.
But it didn’t happen without careful cultivation of their brand, mission and story.
“Some things have evolved and shifted in the business over the years, but one thing that hasn’t is our focus on eliminating youth hunger,” says Andrew. “Our goal is to tell our grandchildren, when we’re old and in our rocking chairs telling them stories, about bygone days when not all kids had enough to eat. And to have our grandchildren be in disbelief, to go, ‘you had all this food, but kids still went hungry? How is that possible?’”
Like any business finding their niche, Mealshare has tried some things that worked, and adjusted some other things that didn’t. While for-profit start-ups might be looking for the right market for a product, and fine-tuning how to maximize returns, Mealshare was finding the way their model could have the biggest impact.
Sometimes this meant making tough choices and acknowledging they couldn’t do it all.
“Originally Mealshare was buy a meal, give a meal to whoever needed it,” says Andrew. “Over time we realized that the vagueness of that made it harder to be a fervent fan and supporter of Mealshare. So we decided to double down on the fact that most of the meals we were providing were for youth. That was something we felt very strongly about and our supporters did, too. So about a year in, we changed from ‘buy a meal, give a meal to someone in need’ to ‘buy a meal, give a meal to a youth in need.’”
It’s meant saying ‘no’ to some opportunities, but they knew that having a clearly identified goal would be vital to success. They’ve been on this track ever since, growing and building partnerships, with an eye to creating a program that the big, national chains – as well as the independent restaurants that had given them their start – could see the value of partnering with. Bigger chains would offer exponentially more opportunity for impact, they knew.
In 2020, they were poised to have just such a success. A long-nurtured partnership with a major national brand was in the offing.
And then the pandemic hit. It wasn’t a great time to be a restaurant – or a non-profit service that depended on restaurants.
After persisting and adapting through a turbulent year, however, their efforts paid off. In February 2021, Mealshare announced a partnership with A&W. As with their other restaurant partners, when A&W customers purchase select meals from the menu, they also donate a meal through charities addressing youth hunger in their own communities.
“We set a five year goal to be Canada’s restaurant charity,” says Andrew. “We knew if we did a really good job of being that, and didn’t try to be all things to all people, maybe we would get to work with A&W and have the impact that comes with it.”
Staying on task and committed to your vision isn’t easy under any circumstances. Given their track record, however, it seems likely that Andrew, Jeremy and the rest of the Mealshare crew are making steps towards that front porch rocking chair where they can tell the story of youth hunger in the past tense.