Portrait

A tour through the headquarters of food distributor OzHarvest with CEO Ronni Kahn. By Sarah Price.

OzHarvest founder Ronni Kahn

Ronni Kahn smiles, curls her fingers to make a fist and knocks her knuckles gently on the table. “One hundred million meals,” she says. Her eyes, bright and alert like a child’s, are swamped by the large frames of her glasses. She wears oversized rings on her fingers and hefty earrings. Draped languidly around her shoulders and neck, a bright yellow scarf. Yellow was the colour Ronni chose to signify OzHarvest’s brand when she started the company 14 years ago, at age 52. In its first year, OzHarvest delivered 600,000 meals to people needing food relief. Last year, in the lead-up to Christmas, that figure reached 100 million.

We are at OzHarvest headquarters in Sydney’s Alexandria, overlooking the industrial space where donated food is stored, cooked and distributed. Downstairs, outside the kitchen, the walls are painted yellow, the fridge is yellow, the delivery van parked on the concrete floor is yellow. There are yellow signs saying: “Did you know? OzHarvest saves 100 tonnes of food from landfill each week”, and, “If food waste were a country it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gas after USA and China.”

Before she started OzHarvest, Ronni was an events planner, “providing beautiful events to mark unique moments in people’s lives”. Her success provided financial security for her family but Ronni had a personal issue: she was running a business that created food waste. She began taking leftover food to a charity on her way home from work. She wondered: What could I do that would be significant? What if I connect food with people in need? “I’d reached a point in my life where I wanted to know what my purpose was. I didn’t identify then that it may or may not have been a midlife crisis,” she says, laughing. “But it was a time I did want to know why I had been put on this Earth and what my legacy would be.”

One-third of all food along the food chain is wasted, Ronni tells me. It is estimated that every year in Australia $20 billion worth of food goes to waste, half of which is a direct result of our behaviour as consumers. We are fussy about the appearance of our fruits and vegetables, and reject quality food that is cosmetically unappealing. On average we discard 20 per cent of the food we purchase, which amounts to one out of five of our shopping bags at the supermarket. Up to 40 per cent of the average household bin waste is food. “The beautiful part of that is if we have caused that problem, we can solve that problem … it is up to us,” Ronni says.

OzHarvest is a transport and logistics company. Excess food is collected from more than 3500 commercial outlets across the country and delivered directly to 1300 charities. The company operates under four pillars: rescue, educate, engage and innovate. Ronni and her OzHarvest team lobbied the government to set a target – in line with the United Nations sustainable development goal – to halve food waste by 2030. With a team of pro bono lawyers, Ronni was instrumental in having the civil liberties legislation amended in all states and territories, so that food could be given to charities without liability to food donors. “Those are just challenges; they are not obstacles. It was just the right people at the right time championing and lobbying. That was fundamental for us: it meant major businesses could come on board. It cleared the way for major food conglomerates to have no excuses.” The OzHarvest business model has been shared globally and operates in Britain, New Zealand and South Africa.

“You cannot be a leader if you don’t have a team, and I’ve got an amazing team,” Ronni says. “There is a great energy: everyone is here because they want to add value to society. We’ve become a place of purpose and meaning. We want to make sure that good food in the first instance doesn’t go to waste. We want to make sure all good food that exists – that will otherwise not be used – will feed vulnerable people. We’re committed to understanding why four million people in Australia need food relief, how we can fundamentally shift and change that, and how we can minimise food waste so we don’t waste our planet’s resources.”

She continues: “It costs us less than 50 cents to deliver a meal. We had our social return on investment measured … For every dollar invested in us there is a $6.75 benefit back to society. This is the sort of thing that inspires me every day and gives me the energy I have. I am into solving problems – not perpetuating them.”

On March 25 the company’s flagship fundraiser will take place at Sydney’s Royal Hall of Industries. Now in its eighth year, the OzHarvest CookOff has already raised $9 million and provided 18 million meals. Ronni is looking for CEOs and corporate teams from across the country to join 60 of Australia’s most talented chefs – including Neil Perry and Matt Moran – to create a gourmet dinner for 1500 OzHarvest special guests. Participants are encouraged to set fundraising goals of $10,000, with an overall target to raise $3 million. The annual dinner is magical, Ronni says. “It’s a unique event where business leaders get to break bread with some of the most vulnerable in our community.”

At the end of our time together Ronni becomes quiet, and lowers her head. Her eyes gloss and tear. She tells me OzHarvest has changed her fundamentally, that she has found her dharma: what it is that she is supposed to be doing. “I guess that is to be an activist, to challenge, but really to facilitate purpose and meaning in others. I feel I’ve been given a gift to do what I do. I wanted to fulfil a very personal need for myself of looking in the mirror and knowing what my legacy would be, but it is addictive when you see that you can do more. It’s hard to settle for, ‘Well, that’s good enough’ – because it’s not actually. For me, it’s always about: ‘How can we do more?’ ”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 9, 2019 as "Kahn-do attitude". Subscribe here.

Sarah Price
is a Sydney-based writer.