Leading the charge


  • Date:01 Oct 2015
  • Type:Company Director Magazine

OzHarvest founder Ronni Kahn talks to Angela Faherty about the food rescue organisation’s first decade in business and how it is setting the benchmark for global change. 

There is often much debate about whether entrepreneurs are born or made, but it is fair to say entrepreneurialism has come naturally to South-African born Ronni Kahn MAICD.

The founder and chief executive officer of perishable food rescue organisation OzHarvest ran her own floristry shop in both Israel and Sydney before establishing an events production company which ultimately led to the idea for OzHarvest. 

“The concept of entrepreneur is an interesting one. I never even knew what it meant, but clearly I’ve always had the initiative to just do what needed to be done,” Kahn says.

Despite her own events business thriving in the early 2000s, Kahn says she began to search for a job that was more meaningful and which would enable her to make a significant contribution to society. Stunned by the amount of food wasted by the hospitality industry, she decided to do something about it.

“Looking at my skills and knowledge I knew my next step involved food. I was making it, producing it and seeing it go to waste – and wondered if I could actually connect good food with people in need on a professional basis. That was the genesis of OzHarvest,” she says.

International inspiration

OzHarvest rescues quality surplus food from restaurants, cafes, hotels, retailers, manufacturers and food outlets, which would otherwise be discarded, and redistributes it to people in need across Australia.

Kahn says the inspiration behind OzHarvest was a New York-based charity called CityHarvest, which has been operating successfully for over 20 years. After a visit overseas to see how the business operated, Kahn brought the food-rescue model back to Sydney and launched OzHarvest in November 2004.

Since then, the business has grown substantially. It has over 600 volunteers, 2,000-plus food donors and has, to date, delivered more than 39 million of these rescued meals to those in need. It has also diverted 12,000 tonnes of food from landfill, of which Kahn is extremely proud.

“We all know that we shouldn’t waste food because we’ve been told that from a very early age, but what we don’t know is what to do with the food that we do waste. It just becomes part of our lifestyle,” she says.

Change in mindset

Getting support for the concept in the early days wasn’t difficult, says Kahn, but there were a number of legislative and bureaucratic barriers that had to be eliminated before OzHarvest could be allowed to truly flourish.

One example was the instrumental role Kahn played in changing the existing legislation across four states in Australia that had prevented food donors from supplying excess food. Now companies and registered businesses around Australia are protected from liability when donating quality excess food to OzHarvest under the Civil Liabilities Amendment Act and Health Act. This was a pivotal step in opening up the ability for companies to safely donate food waste.

“The change had to happen because there was a resistance and a nervousness among the larger suppliers and supermarkets to get on board, particularly around their liability. So the change in the Civil Liabilities Amendment Act allows good food to be given away for free without any fear of liability to the food donor. It also means that certain commitments to our food recipients are met,” she says.

The move has also paved the way for similar movements across the globe with some European countries, including the UK and France, legislating that supermarkets have to give their food away to charities, and for other nations such as Vietnam and India to approach OzHarvest in order to replicate the business model in their own countries.

“The world is changing and there’s a much greater awareness about food rescue,” Kahn says. “We get calls every single day from across the world asking to share our model, to teach, to ask how we can educate people about what we do.”

Global education

The success of OzHarvest places it at the forefront of the domestic and global food rescue movement and the big focus for OzHarvest as it enters its second decade is education.

“When we started OzHarvest, food rescue was really the core element of our business. It still is, however, $8 billion to $10 billion worth of good food goes to waste every year in Australia,” she says.

As such, Kahn says the organisation has redefined its strategy and purpose to focus on three core pillars – rescue, education and engagement. It recently became a partner of the United Nations Environmental Programme to raise awareness and prevent food waste, and on the eve of World Environment Day this year – 4 June – went to Canberra to ask the nation’s leaders to minimise food waste by 50 per cent by 2025, to which they agreed.

“Education is what is going to shift and change that target,” she says. “Education of consumers and the public to change awareness about the value of food, the supply chain, buying local and not wasting food.”

Part of the education piece is a program developed by OzHarvest called Nourish, which aims to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty by providing vulnerable children with education, life skills and a certification in hospitality so that they can find a job. 

Another part of its education program, NEST (nutrition, education, sustenance and training) or “nice, easy, simple, tips,” as Kahn says, is teaching vulnerable people the basic principles around food, such as how to value food, budget, cook and nurture their bodies. OzHarvest has had about 1,200 participants through its NEST program to date and has long-term plans to roll out the program to the general public.

“We have found that kids leaving school do not know how to look after themselves in terms of valuing food, cooking and living a healthy nurtured lifestyle. If kids get taught this early on, they can take it home and pass on their learnings. We have big plans to roll out NEST – we just need support to do that. It’s an exciting program.”

Ending food waste and poverty is a mammoth task, but it is one Kahn is prepared to take on. “When I started this, I never put a limit on it, but there is no stopping until we stop food waste. I did think it would be quicker to achieve and I could never have envisaged how much food actually goes to waste. Ultimately, my biggest goal is to actually end hunger, end food waste and end poverty. We made these problems, so we can unmake them,” she says.

She admits it is an ambitious challenge but prides herself on what she and her team at OzHarvest have achieved in its first 11 years. “We were trailblazers,” she says. “When we started, nobody had tapped into perishable food – we were the first people to recognise and look at food rescue. To shift and change the mindset of a country is very exciting,” she says.