Waste not, want not

Australian entrepreneur Ronni Kahn has turned the overflowing tables on food waste, making it her life’s work to redirect good quality, unwanted food to hungry people.

Food waste in the face of others’ deprivation is the dinner-table lament of mothers everywhere – and I’m sure I’m not the only kid who defiantly put their leftovers in an envelope to be posted to Africa.

Ronni Kahn’s solution is almost childlike in its simplicity, but it is one that has now passed the ten-million meal mark and in 2010, earned her the Australian of the Year Local Hero award for her work.

Since Ronnie founded the organisation in 2004, OzHarvest volunteers have taken top-notch food which is thrown away daily in the commercial world and distributed it to many of the charities that house and feed Australia’s homeless population.

Ronni started with one van in Sydney, delivering around 4,000 meals in her first month. Six years on, the charity has 12 vans and delivers around 350,000 meals each month in Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne Wollongong, Newcastle, Adelaide and Brisbane. The refrigerated vans leave each morning to pick up excess, perishable food from cafes and restaurants, caterers and clubs – even from boardrooms, film shoots and conference venues.

The collected food is then divided into standard meal sizes and within a couple of hours, is delivered to one of 330 charities, and then the van is off to the next pick-up.

And by saving huge volumes of food from the tip, the charity is also making a positive environmental impact by reducing the estimated 3 million tonnes of food that Australians waste each year. Each kilogram of rescued food also saves two kilograms of greenhouse emissions and around 140 litres of water from being wasted!

Recognising the need
Before taking up the reins of her not-for-profit organisation full-time, Ronni ran her own Sydney-based event management company for over a decade. Seeing good food go to waste was a taken-for-granted industry flaw, but it was one that she found increasingly hard to reconcile with her more austere background in South Africa and Israel where poverty, discrimination and war were rife.

“In my business life, I was constantly aware of left-over food because I was creating it. Providing food at events is about showing your client off to look their best, and you do that with an abundance of everything, you make sure the drinks and food just flows, because the more things flow, the more welcomed people feel.”

Occasionally Ronni was able to bring leftover food from functions to a Sydney inner-city homeless men’s charity, Matthew Talbot Hostel – but it was a frustratingly small step.  

Born to share
Born in Johannesburg to a middle-class Jewish family, Ronni grew up around social activists and by her late teens, decided that she couldn’t live within the apartheid regime.

Offered a scholarship to a university in Israel to study art and literature, a restless Ronni  left South Africa, spending the next 18 years in Israel, where she married and had two sons, living for a decade of that time with her young family on a Kibbutz.

Ronni admits her headstrong nature was challenged by living in a communal settlement ruled by a committee, but says that living close to the food they grew and the social justice philosophy of the Kibbutz delivered her some compensations.

In 1988, restless again, Ronni and her family moved away from the conflict in the Middle East, to Australia. Though they had little money, Ronni soon established her events company and some years later was amicably divorced. A subsequent relationship with a wealthy man brought her values to the fore. “I had never really had money and in this relationship I realised having money didn’t make you happy. There’s a limit to how many rooms you can live in and how many shoes you can wear.”

Wanting to make a difference
Ronni grew restless again, and in 2003, visited an old friend in South Africa, the social activist and radiologist Dr Selma Browde.

Selma took Ronni to a Soweto AIDS clinic and talked about her own greatest achievement as an elected city councillor, bringing electricity to over one million people who lived in the Soweto township.

“I was so struck by this – what must it feel like to help so many people! And I realised I couldn’t live my life the same way any longer,” Ronni recalls. “By the time I returned, I was passionate about finding a way to bring that wasted food to those people who needed it, but I didn’t know where to start.”

Food Rescue
Ronni discovered business models in America which were putting food rescue into practice – so she booked a ticket to visit her sister in California and soon met with people working in food rescue agencies, most of them based on New York’s City Harvest agency, which started in 1982.

Returning to Australia, she pulled out her contact book and got in touch with many of her influential corporate friends and clients – and before long, she had the backing of The Macquarie Group Foundation and Goodman International. Her sons and friends helped out, and while it took a year to set up the charity, finding backers and volunteers, Ronni found that there was one barrier she didn’t have to face.

“I didn’t actually have to teach anybody about food rescue. Everybody’s mother at some point in their lives had said, ‘Don’t waste good food when others go hungry!’”

The timing helped, she adds – she was starting a charity in 2004, when corporate social responsibility was just taking off.

With one of the big barriers for most commercial food producers the risk of legal liability, Ronni successfully campaigned for the Civil Liabilities Amendment (Food Donations) Act, passed into NSW law in 2005, with similar changes achieved in most other states.

“I set it up in a way that was very business-like, simple and transparent. What we do sounds very simple. It’s a little more complicated at the back end – but, we collect food and we deliver it to people in need.”

Now happily married to her ‘soulmate,’ a man she met while setting up OzHarvest, Ronni Kahn’s energy is devoted to getting food to the hungry; and there’s not a sign of restlessness any more. 

Donate food or time to OzHarvest, or read more about the organisation at www.ozharvest.org.

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