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How OzHarvest founder Ronni Kahn sparked a food rescue revolution

OzHarvest founder Ronni Kahn doesn’t just rescue food to feed people in need: she inspires. If she can make a difference, each of us can, and together we can change the world for the better

How OzHarvest founder Ronni Kahn sparked a food rescue revolution

It’s first thing Monday morning but Ronni Kahn AO has already meditated, been out for a brisk walk, and held a couple of meetings by the time her oversized glasses and shock of cropped silver hair appear on my screen. She’s a social entrepreneur on a mission and nothing, not even a global pandemic, is going to hold her back.

Not that COVID-19 hasn’t made things difficult for her food-rescue charity. “We didn’t pivot, we pirouetted,” says Kahn. “The need is the greatest we’ve ever seen, and the ability to rescue food is lessened, so for the first time we’ve had to find funding to purchase food.”

Having spent the past few days listening to her memoir, A Repurposed Life, and then reading it, Kahn’s cheerful, melodic voice has become familiar, and I’m eager to hear more. When I ask why she wrote the book, her answer is simple: “I felt I had something to say.”

Kahn credits her ability to make lemonade out of lemons, along with her positivity and endless energy, largely to her upbringing. “My mother had this resilient spirit of managing and coping and surviving,” says Kahn. Her father, disabled but resolute following a serious car accident, taught her to wake up each day and choose a positive attitude, no matter what life threw her way.

Kahn grew up a tomboy in South Africa during the 1950s, and although apartheid made her world, quite literally, black and white, her parents raised her to believe all people were created equal. Her best friend was the boy next door, his mother an outspoken anti-apartheid activist who would come to play an important role in Kahn’s life. But back then, Kahn saw herself as a “little mouse” and could never have imagined starting a charity or speaking in public.

She didn’t consider herself particularly academic, beautiful, funny or popular and had no sense that she had the capacity to do anything great, she explains. “Yet I know that I have played a part in creating some great things. If a person like me can do these things, then anyone can.”

Along the way, several points in Kahn’s life made her realise that, actually, she might be more capable than she’d grown up believing. The first came in the form of a new haircut – a fro, to be precise.

Hear her roar

After high school, Kahn’s parents organised for her to move to Jerusalem to study art history and English literature and her first husband-to-be soon joined her there. They moved to a kibbutz, sharing jobs, food and farmland with 300 or so other families, and had two sons. Good friendships aside, Kahn found herself dissatisfied with the socialist life.

At age 23, she walked into a hairdresser for no other reason than to shake things up a little, and came out with a 1970s-style perm. “It sounds absurd that a perm could change your life but let me tell you – this perm changed my life!” The attention-getting fro filled her with confidence. When she looked in the mirror, she no longer saw a mouse, she saw a lion – with a voice and opinions … and a pretty incredible mane.

By the time she convinced her husband to leave the kibbutz, it had made an indelible impression on her. In Haifa, Israel, she went on to co-run three florists, taught aerobics at a women’s refuge, and lived through the second of two wars. With the prospect of their eldest son turning 14, however, compulsory military service loomed and they made the hard decision to move to Australia.

Meaning of life

It made sense to find work as a florist as Kahn set about creating a new life in Sydney, but when a customer asked her to transform her wedding with more than just flowers, it opened the door for Kahn to start her own events management business.

By her mid-40s, Kahn’s confidence had grown – she was good at turning venues into dreams come true. “I discovered I had the capacity to be passionately influential,” she says. Her marriage dissolved and, although she finds it difficult to share this publicly, Kahn ignored the red flags and fell for a high-flying conman. When that relationship ended, it made her reflect on what she really wanted.

In re-evaluating her life, she asked: “Is this life of mine good for me and is it doing good for others?” The answer lay in something that had been weighing heavily on her mind: the amount of perfectly good food being thrown out at the end of every one of her catered events.

One particularly decadent event prompted her to take action. She bundled up all the leftover cartons and trays of fresh food, loaded them into her car and took it to a homeless shelter, where it was gratefully received. A seed had been planted.

Kahn was 51 when she started OzHarvest, but it was a trip back to visit Selma Browde, her old next door neighbour in South Africa, that put the fire in her belly to do good on a bigger scale. Selma had made it her mission to bring electricity to Soweto and, with unwavering determination, she’d done it.

Hearing Selma’s success story lit a light in Kahn, too, and she still gets goosebumps thinking about it. Through leftover food, she was going to change the world for the better – in a bigger way than she’d dared imagine.

Founded in 2004, OzHarvest has gone on to change food rescue laws and transform lives, giving people in need access to healthy food made with surplus food from supermarkets, hotels, airlines, events and restaurants, and helping the planet in the process. Kahn has also shared OzHarvest’s business model with start-up charities in New Zealand, the UK and South Africa.

Spreading the message

OzHarvest also runs a ‘take what you need, give if you can’ supermarket in Sydney, upskills at-risk youth, and educates kids and the community about food waste, cooking and nutrition. With 220 staff (120 of them driving the 60-strong fleet of food rescue vans) and 2,500 volunteers, Kahn says the Sydney HQ is a purposeful, positive and energetic place.

“It’s a collective made up of extraordinary human beings who’ve chosen to make purpose a fundamental part of their life. “When we take ourselves out of the focus and understand that it’s our role to be a part of the whole, not the centre of the whole, everything shifts,” she explains. “You get more than you could ever imagine by giving, and it’s way more precious.

Kahn is an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO), has an honorary doctorate, and is an Australian Local Hero of the Year. At the graduations and corporate events she’s often invited to address, sharing the ingredients of living a purpose-filled life is what she’s most asked to talk about. “People want to know how to find passion and purpose, how to wake up feeling complete.” As well as questioning what brings their life meaning and delight, she says a good place to start is by asking: “What does the world most need from me?”

Public support

Kahn has been buoyed by people’s “extraordinary generosity” to keep OzHarvest operating during COVID, a time that’s highlighted just how easy it is for anyone to become one of the many people the charity helps.

“It’s brought that message home to people who never ever thought they’d fall through the cracks,” she says. “It’s a new cohort of people who never imagined themselves needing some kind of relief or support. It just takes something as sudden as your business closing down or the business you work for closing down and suddenly you’ve spiralled into not being able to pay your mortgage, pay your bills, or look after your children … most of us are three pays away from struggling.”

Whatever the reason someone needs help, OzHarvest strives to support them with dignity and respect. “OzHarvest has given me a new perspective about the fragility of our planet,” says Kahn. “Every single one of us has a role to play in creating a better world.”

Want to support OzHarvest’s work? Visit ozharvest.org to donate

Photography: Hugh Stewart, Toby Burrows

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