Ronni Kahn and OzHarvest are on a mission to send leftover food to stomachs instead of dumps
In 2004 Ronni Kahn was thriving as a successful events coordinator in Australia. The South African born Kahn’s events were renowned for putting on high quality food and drink to highlight the host company’s generosity and prosperity.
She made a point of over- catering to avoid the horror of running out of lobster and avocado rolls. At first she didn’t give much thought to what happened to the uneaten food. The caterers dealt with it and life moved on.
However Ronni started to take notice and realized there was a hell of a lot of food being wasted. She reasoned that if it was happening at her events it was happening everywhere.
“Basically, it was unacceptable”, she says.
In Australia alone 4 million people need food relief and $20 billion of food goes to waste each year.
Kahn was sparked into action when she visited a friend in South Africa. The friend took Ronni to Soweto – a place Kahn had never been to due to apartheid.
Ronni’s friend was explaining changes that had come to the impoverished region and humbly mentioned that she was responsible for bringing electricity to the region.
This had a huge impact on Kahn. The idea of doing whatever is in your power to create change for the better.
She was at a stage in life where she wanted to make a meaningful contribution and felt she was in an ideal position to do so.
“I figured I knew about surplus food and I knew there were people in need, so if I could connect the two it might be a good idea.”
Kahn wasn’t trying to solve world hunger but was hell-bent on at least doing something purposeful.
She started taking whatever she could in her car and dropping it at off at the only reputable charity she knew of – the Matthew Talbot Hostel in Sydney.
Ronni discovered a few more community services and agencies which could take her food but it was still very much a whenever she had time pursuit.
Eventually she reached the point where “I wanted to make a significant difference. I never started OzHarvest because I was a rich bored housewife.”
In 2004 she founded OzHarvest with the goal to provide as much food as possible to those who needed it.
She had to continue working in her events role to pay the bills but every available hour was then spent on building strategies to rescue and distribute food. Kahn already had plenty of contacts in the hospitality industry to steer her towards food surpluses.
She sought out community and charity organizations that could supply food to those in need.
However Kahn struck a significant roadblock. The ability to provide food was seriously restricted by civil liability and health legislation that prevented food donors from supplying excess food.
Preposterous, she thought, I’m not having that.
Kahn enlisted the help of a pro-bono legal team and went to work on changing the legislation.
Common sense prevailed and she was successful, with 4 states changing their legislation to allow excess food to be freely distributed.
Kahn modelled her new venture on the New York charity CityHarvest which also focused on food rescue.
She secured initial funding with an investment group and liaised with the logistics group Goodman Foundation. Goodman provided OzHarvest with its first delivery van and they were in business.
The first delivery was in November 2004 and for that one month alone they delivered 4,000 meals to 14 shelters using just the one van.
Kahn continued to expand her network of food suppliers and distributors and OzHarvest grew into a national organization.
The next step was to make food more readily available by opening Australia’s first food rescue supermarket in Sydney. Food trucks were also set up throughout major cities to provide nutritious meals made from excess food.
Since the early days of 2004 Kahn has gone on to work with the United Nations Environment and Australian government to coordinate food rescues and to educate on food waste.
Oz Harvest now rescues over 180 tons of food each week from over 3,500 food donors including supermarkets, hotels, airports, wholesalers, farmers and corporate events.
The organization is also focused on delivering education programs to promote sustainability and reduce food waste. The programs are aimed at everyone in the community from school children to businesses and governments.
16 years on, if asked whether she still has the drive and motivation to remain fully engaged, Kahn doesn’t hesitate.
“I think it’s even stronger. When you see that giving is so much more powerful than getting – boy, you just don’t want to stop.”