Ronni Kahn, founder, OzHarvest

Find what your cause is, and act on it ...

We could blast you with statistics about more than 30 million meals being delivered to Australians in need or we could talk about the 10 million kilos of quality food that have been rescued and redistributed to hungry bellies. But what it all comes down to, is changing lives for the better. This is the goal Ronni Kahn has been working for, day in and day out, since she launched OzHarvest ten years ago. She’s lobbied state governments to amend legislation, launched food-rescue operations around the country and raised awareness about the massive problem of food waste in Australia. And amongst all of that, she’s put smiles on faces and given hope to those who had none. The Weekend Edition gave the South African-born Sydneysider a call this week to talk food, festivals and finding one’s calling.

OzHarvest recently celebrated ten years of operations – what a milestone! How did you feel, knowing that you were the one voice that started it all?
It’s pretty exciting, I must say! One of the reasons for starting OzHarvest was wanting to know my purpose, so it feels amazing but also daunting because there’s still so much more to do! We made the most divine video clip celebrating our tenth birthday, which is really meaningful.

What can you remember about taking that first step ten years ago and launching OzHarvest – was it scary starting out, or were you just too excited to waste time worrying?
I was so excited but the scary part was that I’d always been in business for myself. But the excitement has never left me – every single day, it just feels like a fresh, new way to start and I feel so blessed and privileged to do what I do.

Can you tell us a bit more about the very first OzHarvest delivery in November 2004?
I was working in hospitality and whenever I could, I would go and take some food to people. I was doing it on a very small scale and it was very confronting, but it just made sense to do. So I guess that was the genesis. But picking up that first lot of food from an official source – then it was called Macro Health Foods Store – and taking it to that first drop-off and seeing the faces at the agency, I’ll never, ever forget that. It was pretty special.

As founder and CEO of the organisation, what would you say have been some of the greatest rewards and the biggest challenges over the past decade?
The reward is feeling nurtured, nourished and fulfilled because you’re doing something for somebody else. The journey has been all about learning and giving; every day I learn something new about impacting and making a difference – it’s very powerful. So that’s been the best part and has never left me. As for the challenges, first of all I never thought I would fail – it just never occurred to me that I wouldn’t succeed. So the challenges were quite minimal because it was just like, “Well how do we get around that? Ok, let’s do it.” If we needed to have the laws changed, well what would we do about it? We’d change the laws. And we did. The goal never changed or shifted, and I just never felt daunted. And I got an enormous amount of support along the way so I suppose that’s what also fuelled my capacity to do it.

How has the organisation developed over the years?
I guess what’s shifted over the years was that when I started I knew there was food and I wanted to feed people, but what I didn’t realise was the extent of the impact on the environment and how enormous the problem was: $8–10 billion and 30 percent of all food produced goes to waste. This therefore meant that OzHarvest has shifted and changed in many ways, because although food rescue is our core focus, education is the answer to minimising the problem, as opposed to just sustaining it. Every day our 32 vehicles go out and rescue food and deliver it to more than 600 agencies – it’s the equivalent of about 100,000 meals and at least 35 tonnes of food a week. So the problem is enormous and how are we going to change that? Through education. Teaching vulnerable people how to live and eat better and how to break the cycle of inter-generational poverty. We have a program called Nourish, which is about taking vulnerable youths between 16 and 24 years and providing them with hospitality training and a pathway to committed employment.

What is OzHarvest working on right now?
We have a huge digital campaign launching on the eve of World Environment Day, June 4, and we want to get 10,000 pledges from individuals who are committed to changing their food waste habits. We’ve also just started Harvested, Australia’s first food-rescue pop-up cafe in Sydney. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays we’re serving a beautiful lunch produced from cosmetically imperfect and ‘ugly’ fruit and vegetables, and food that’s been discarded for no reason other than the labelling or timing is wrong, and it’s absolutely fit for consumption. Our chef Travis Harvey is turning that perfectly good food into the most delicious creations and people are lining up to support us because every dollar that we raise allows us to deliver at least two meals to someone in need. We’ve had our social return on investment measured, which is $5.68 for every dollar invested. So that means if someone gives us $10, it’s worth $50 to society for the improvements we make.

We interviewed the founder of Food Connect recently and when we asked what the long-term goal was for the social enterprise, he answered to be so successful in educating consumers that Food Connect no longer needed to exist. Does that hold true for OzHarvest as well? To reduce food wastage to such a degree that your services are no longer required?
Oh totally! My whole goal has always been to put ourselves out of business. So food isn’t being wasted and we’ve taught people who need food how to take the bit of money they have and use it better than purchasing processed, unhealthy food.

Is there a particular experience or memory you could share with us, that really affirmed why it is you get up and do this every day?
Well, where to start … I guess the mum who came and told me a few years ago that they had never had much food and at school her kid was bored, irritable and disruptive, but then they started getting food from us and eating properly – and her kid had just enrolled in university! Do I need more reasons to wake up in the morning?!

By now, I’m sure many of our readers would be champing at the bit to get involved with OzHarvest – how can Brisbane residents help the cause?
Good! We’re a magnet for magnificent people so if they’re tempted or want to be magnificent, all they have to do is come to us and they get to be more magnificent! Go to our website and click on the Give A Little Love button because that tells you how you can become a volunteer for us. There are so many things they can do and we just need every little bit of help we can get!

And what about people who live just outside of the city, how can they help?
Well we have a model called REAP, which is our regional arm, where we teach volunteers in local communities how to rescue food – we have 15 programs all over. But if anybody is interested in getting an OzHarvest program in their town, village or region, just contact us.

You’ll be up in Queensland for The Planting festival in early June – what can you tell us about your involvement?
Well it’s all about sustainability and everything within the program is focused on teaching, learning and experiencing how to live a better, more sustainable life and how to make a difference. It’s an exciting program and we hope that it’s absolutely chockas to the rafters!

And shortly after that, you’ll be back in Brisbane for a special launch event at ARIA …
Yes, the Queensland Government donated a van to us, so we’ll be celebrating the fact that we can rescue more food, deliver more goodness and help more people. Matt Moran is one of our ambassadors and the Federal Member for Brisbane, Teresa Gambaro, was also instrumental in us getting that donation, so we’ll be acknowledging and thanking Queensland for supporting OzHarvest.

What words of wisdom can you share with readers who may have their own aspirations to make a difference in their community and launch a non-profit, but are too nervous to act on it?
Just get out and do it! But first really check that nobody is doing anything like it. Not everybody has to start a charity but volunteering and being involved in community is so important. I’m not sure why I was lucky enough to be the founder of an organisation, quite honestly. But our volunteers tell us – and I can see it – that they have found purpose and meaning having found a cause that they believe in and giving their all to that, and that’s incredibly valuable. Never think that by volunteering you’re not giving enough; just do what you can. Not everybody has to start a charity, but go out and find what your cause is, and act on it. You really only have now.

What do you hope your legacy will be?
For me, I just wanted to know that I had done something significant, so I suppose to know that really OzHarvest created the awareness around food waste in Australia, well that’s pretty big! And if I’ve made a difference to one person’s life, that is very, very important.


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