The vision thing

Ronni Khan, founder of OzHarvest.

Ronni Khan, founder of OzHarvest.

Ronni Kahn, one of this year’s Australians of the Year, has created an organisation that can help society’s neediest, and helps the environment, by dealing with restaurants’ excess food that would have been wasted

‘Food rescue’, as an idea, straddles an awkward divide between charity and waste. The idea is really simple. The impact it can have is quite profound. But explaining the idea to restaurateurs and caterers—many of whom pride themselves on minimising waste and on using every bit of food they can—can sometimes be tricky.

Perhaps it’s easier to explain that Ronni Kahn—founding director of food rescue charity OzHarvest—was named Australia’s Local Hero 2010, one of four award categories of the Australian of the Year Awards this year. OzHarvest is a not-for-profit organisation that rescues unwanted food from restaurants, retailers, food outlets and corporate kitchens across Sydney, Canberra and Wollongong to feed communities at risk. In doing so, it both helps the most vulnerable members of society, as well as diverting thousands of tonnes of food from being dumped as landfill.

It is not an organisation like Food Bank, or similar outfits, which will reconstitute leftover food. It is not set up to divert waste from landfill. “We’re really a perishables transport group,” says Khan. “We laugh when we get requests from organisations or agencies for a particular type of food, because we never know what we’re going to get. But we would always have food, so every agency is going to get something— we’ve found the world and the universe does provide. We  get agencies saying ‘we’d like to do a barbecue’. We always tell them we’re not a catering company.”

Every day, OzHarvest vans deliver meals to between 40 and 50 agencies, with delivery times matched up to breakfast, lunch or dinner. “So this morning, for example, I picked up 35 ham and cheese croissants, two dozen pastries, and a pile of salads and took them straight to an agency, and they will serve that today,” says Khan. “We have heard from volunteers of people telling them, ‘I changed my day I came in because this is OzHarvest day’.”

Of course, the system isn’t perfectly matched—apparently a significant number of recipients of food from agencies do not appreciate artisan olive bread, for example—but it’s not just about food. “We bring dignity as well as variety,” says Khan, “by offering them food that they could never afford. We have to be mindful that no-one’s dumping stuff on us. We only want the food that was whatever your clients were going to buy. It really gives them a feeling that people care. It’s about nourishing more than just their tummies.”

Indeed it is—part of the OzHarvest story is Ronni managing to get legislation changed in several states that protects donors from any liability when supplying unwanted food. OzHarvest now has more than 600 food donors and delivers more than 110,000 meals each month to 163 charities in Sydney, Canberra and Wollongong with plans to roll out nationally this year.

It is unique in its ability to strike a chord with both donors and sponsors, answering several of the pillars of triple bottom line reporting in one fell swoop. And it is driven in large part by the passion of Ronni Khan.

hen’s this article coming out?” Khan asks when we rang to interview her. “Because during the month of June we’re running a campaign called Feed Sydney. On 15th June, we want to drive people into restaurants, and that’s going to raise awareness. The proceeds go to 160 charities to help them feed people better. So if we can cover the Feed Sydney campaign—we haven’t worked out details yet, but there’ll be more on the website www.feedsydney.com.au.

“And also, I’m planning on talking to the top 25 restaurateurs—all of them—and creating a food council. Champions of OzHarvest, to run ideas past and so on.”

“We do get agencies saying ‘we’d like to do a barbecue’, but we always tell them we’re not a catering company.” Ronni Kahn, Founding Director, OzHarvest

It quickly transpires that both these plans are still at the ‘vision’ stage. But Ronni Khan appears to have a talent for getting others to help her realise her vision.

It’s how OzHarvest started. “For the last 20 years I had my own events company, and mostly served people food,” she explains. “Six years ago I wanted to make a contribution to society, and I figured the best thing I knew was this. I just decided I was going to do it. It just never occurred to me that I wouldn’t make it happen and make it work.”

There was one particular event, however, that proved a tipping point for her: she had catered for 1500 people at an event where 700 had turned up. “It was buffet-style, and there was no way I could bear seeing food going to waste,” she says. “So I decided to take it straight to charities. I did that at several events, when I could, just so it wouldn’t be wasted.”

She began doing it more regularly. As she got more security around the business, she reflected more and more on what she could do to help people. Ronni discovered AmericaHarvest, a charity that had successfully been operating for over 20 years in the States. After meeting AmericaHarvest founder Helen Verduin Palit, Ronni brought the food rescue model back to Sydney.

Backed by funds from The Macquarie Group Foundation and Goodman International which provided a van and office space, OzHarvest collected its first meal in November 2004.

Back then, she and Ilona Lee, OzHarvest’s chairman, approached R&C’s then-President, Michael Fischer, to see how the restaurant industry could help. “It was hard for me to contribute at that stage, but I thought it was a great opportunity because they wanted to rescue food and feed the hungry,” he recalls. “There’s a lot of waste in our industry, and it’s a terrible thing to throw it out.”

But over the first four years of OzHarvest’s life the organisation grew far more rapidly than anyone—perhaps other than Ronni—imagined. She soon gave away her events business (she officially closed the doors last year), and a board was put together to help steer the organisation in its next phase of growth. Micahel Fischer was approached again, this time to join.

“I’ve been on the board for 12 months, and have been blown away by how professional it is, and the response to OzHarvest,” he says. “I’m impressed by the way big companies can see this as a no-brainer. Oz Harvest has been well placed to capitalise because its so simple and straightforward. It’s not something that happens tomorrow, there’s no prepping, making or storing—just collecting the food from sources that have it and giving it to people who need it today.”

And central to it all, he says, is Ronni: “Rarely do you find someone with as much passion. The board gives a sense of discipline, because being an emotional, passionate person doesn’t automatically create an effective organisation. But you need that passion. And I think the figures and service she’s been able to produce are fantastic.” Not just figures—one of OzHarvest’s achievements has been removing the legal barriers for food donors, ensuring that people could donate food without fear of liability. “That was time-consuming, although in hindsight it doesn’t seem that bad,” says Khan. “But we had a lawyer working on it, lobbying and making it happen. It seems effortless, but it wasn’t.”

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