Ronni Kahn is the woman behind OzHarvest, the first food rescue organisation in Australia that collects excess food and delivers it to charities across the country. A veteran pioneer of the food industry, Ronni started the organisation back in 2004 with a mission to nourish the country; her story is a blueprint on how to effectively change a community’s attitude to food.
Since starting, OzHarvest has turned what would have been 18,000 tonnes of food waste into meals for those in need and has recently celebrated serving up its 60 millionth meal!
This week Ronni talks to us about her inspirations, the enduring success of OzHarvest and how we can change to ensure a sustainable food future.
Tell me a bit about you and your history with food?
I’ve got a bit of a global history as I was born in South Africa, then moved as a young adult to Israel before finally settling in Australia. I raised my family on a kibbutz in Israel where we lived amongst beautiful orchards, grew wheat, cotton and watermelons. Everyone ate in a communal dining room, which meant cooking for 350 people. It was hard and rewarding work, but I knew I was destined for something and somewhere different.
After living in Australia for a few years I started an events business, my world was full of producing amazing events where food featured prominently and abundance was crucial. This is where I noticed the ridiculous amount of food wasted and that I was a contributor. I love Middle Eastern food because it's so much about beautiful produce. I have all Yotam Ottolenghi's recipe books and read them all the time. I’m a big fan of good Italian food and am a regular at Pasta Emilia in Surry Hills and Da Orazio in Bondi. Food often brings joy and people together and I love that.
At what point did you realise food waste was a big enough problem to start your own food rescue program?
Working in the event industry for 20 years, I saw thousands of kilos of good food going to waste. I saw there was a gap between surplus food and people in need, and decided it was my purpose to make the connection. A visit to see an old friend in South Africa who was doing amazing work with underprivileged communities provided me with my ‘aha’ moment. It was during this trip that I knew I wanted to live a life of purpose and was galvanised into action to begin a new journey.
Amazing. What hurdles did you face when you were starting out and how did you overcome them?
As with any new business there were many hurdles to getting it off the ground. I originally thought it would take about a month, but it actually took a year!
The biggest hurdle was making it easy for businesses to donate food without fear of liability. So, in 2005 we successfully lobbied to have the Civil Liabilities Amendment Act changed in NSW, other states followed shortly afterwards. An ongoing challenge is to make headway towards the national target of reducing food waste by 50% by 2025, working with government and stakeholders to make it a reality. Part of making this happen is to increase awareness and education around food waste habits, and inspire everyone from families to business leaders, farmers, restaurants, retailers and supermarkets to change their behaviour.
What has been a highlight of your time with OzHarvest?
There has been so many! When I saw the first van deliver rescued food to hungry people I was overcome with joy. I love watching our Nourish students grow, thrive and finally graduate with their Certificate 2 in Hospitality. Recently, a parent of one of the students told me that after leaving and dropping out of many schools, their son had finally found an educational opportunity through the Nourish program, which made him feel accomplished. To see a young man reach his potential and watch his parents brim with pride, knowing that I have helped in some way to make that happen, are incredibly special moments.
Similarly, I’m always moved when I see the joy on people's faces as their eyes light up when the OzHarvest van arrives to deliver food - whether it's a homeless man, or a woman who's been living for months in a refuge, or a child who does not have the luxury of eating a bowl of cereal for breakfast - is an extremely humbling experience.
How do you think attitudes towards food waste have changed in the time OzHarvest has been around?
People are slowly coming to terms with how wasteful we are as a country, we produce enough food for 60 million, yet 2 million people still rely on food relief. This is just not acceptable. The more people that know and care about the issue, the more we can help to eliminate hunger and food waste, as well as save our environment. At OzHarvest we are always looking for new ways to inspire and educate people about food waste, food security and sustainability. Our education program NEST promotes nutrition education to vulnerable communities and Nourish provides hospitality training and mentoring for disadvantaged young people.
I was recently inspired when I visited a farming family in Queensland. They organise community days where members of the public are invited to visit their farm and learn about the land and all the work and toil that goes into producing a single carrot. I believe that if we find more ways to connect people to the land and the food we produce, then people will realise the true value of food and may not be so quick to waste it.
Absolutely! You've transformed the way this country sees food waste which is a massive achievement - what do you attribute your success to?
It’s a mammoth team effort, made up of devoted staff, passionate and like-minded partners and an every growing ‘yellow army’ of volunteers (we now have over 1,500) who are all living and breathing the message every day. Everyone that works with OzHarvest is driven by the same purpose, to nourish our country and are 100% committed to making a difference.
We are also extremely proud to be the official partner of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) on their Think.Eat.Save campaign. For the last four years we’ve hosted events across Australia and internationally, feeding people a delicious lunch made from rescued ingredients and raising awareness about the alarming global food waste statistics.
What keeps driving you everyday?
I’m incredibly fortunate, I absolutely love the work I do and am passionate about helping others. I may not have ‘riches’ in the way many define being rich, but I have a job with soul and purpose and empathy for others and there is nothing more valuable than giving.
What are three things people can do to help the issue of food waste in Australia?
1. Love and reuse the leftovers in their fridge – get creative with ingredients that you would normally have thrown away (the UrbanHarvest Cookbook can give you some great recipe ideas!)
2. Get involved with our new #PledgeAPlate campaign by sharing a dish made from leftovers on social media, nominate a friend and donate to OzHarvest.
3. Support local growers and Australian farmers and buy the wonky and imperfect fruit and veg, Woolworths ‘Odd Bunch’ range is a great example.
We can’t change the world overnight, but we do need people to take action and change their food waste habits, I’m still shocked by the statistics that 1 in 5 shopping bags end up in the bin, that’s over $1,000 worth of groceries per household.
It's terrible isn't it. So how do you think the issue will fare globally over the next 10 years?
The issue of food waste is already on the global stage. The UN have set a food waste reduction target as part of the Sustainable Development Goals to halve per capita food waste at retail and consumer level and reduce food losses along production and supply chains by 2030. We’ve already seen countries taking the lead in this area. Earlier this year France became the first country in the world to ban supermarkets from throwing away or destroying unsold food, forcing them instead to donate it to charities and food banks.
Italy passed a similar law a few months later and Denmark opened the first non-profit surplus food supermarket. In Australia, we’re working towards the vision to reduce food waste by 50% by 2025 which will require major commitment and change from Government, businesses, manufacturers, farmers, supermarkets, restaurants and households.
The global challenge is to create a sustainable food culture that can be shared by all which needs everyone one of us to do something. Food is just too precious to waste, every time we throw something away, it’s literally costing us the earth.
It's true! Finally Ronni, what's one thing you've learnt that you can share with others trying to start their own endeavours, however big or small?
People are always asking me how I do it, I look them in the eye and say, ‘There's no time like now. Get on with it and do something.' Until you do it, you can't actually explain the energy that fuels you.
Find your purpose and surround yourself with passionate people. Passion is always contagious. I know this for a fact. I always say, OzHarvest is a magnet for magnificent people and to this day, we continue to attract great people from everywhere.
Every dollar counts - donate to OzHarvest here: https://www.ozharvest.org/give-a-little-love/donate-money/