Keeping kids in school with meals program

Meals for Schools will serve food to impoverished schoolchildren in urban slum areas.

BEIRUT: It’s hard to concentrate on school when your stomach is growling with hunger. And it’s even harder to stay in school when there’s the option to work odd jobs and earn money for food – something education doesn’t immediately offer. To make sure kids stay in school and stay fed, Samer Sfeir has come up with a plan that does both. Meals for Schools, a concept he came up with two years ago – which is now up for an international award for social entrepreneurship – will serve food to impoverished schoolchildren in urban slum areas, starting with greater Beirut.

“It’s very simple. If you don’t have food, you won’t think about education,” says Sfeir, an MBA student at the American University of Beirut’s Olayan School of Business. He, along with two fellow AUB students, Chantale Saadeh and Elie Matta, founded the project.

The idea came from Sfeir’s five years of volunteer work with charity Saint Vincent de Paul, in which he witnessed some shocking cases of child poverty. With a background in both business and charity work, he thought he could make a real difference to help break the poverty cycle in Lebanon. “Education is the real solution to poverty,” he says.

The money will come from an award-winning social enterprise that Sfeir founded four years ago. Hub4Good connects social enterprises and non-governmental organizations to individuals and companies, acting as an online mall to sell products directly to consumers and eliminating the middleman.

A percentage of Hub4Good’s profit will be used to give coupons for meals to schools in poor areas. Once it gains traction, Sfeir hopes they will also be able to attract local corporate sponsors, particularly restaurants.

He believes that with the right structure, Meals for Schools can become a viable business in the model of other social enterprises that have been able to combine profit with corporate social responsibility.

Out of more than 10,000 applicants, Sfeir’s team was one of roughly 50 – and the only one from Lebanon – to be named a regional finalist for the Hult Prize in Dubai in March.

The winner will be given a million dollars to launch their project, intended to be a a startup accelerator for budding social entrepreneurs.

Although they didn’t make the cut in March, they have reapplied via the online category. The top 10 will be decided by online voting (closing May 12), which will then give teams a chance to compete against the regional finalists and go on to win the top prize.

Even if he doesn’t succeed, Sfeir says he is still determined to go ahead anyway, even if it will take longer to get the project off the ground.

“If we wait for the government or someone else to do it, they never will. They never have.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 10, 2013, on page 2.




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