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Fighting Food Waste with Ronni Kahn

For 16 years, Ronni Kahn AO has been fighting food waste and sustaining Australians in need. But 2020 is proving her toughest battle by far.

When Ronni Kahn saw the images of bare supermarket shelves across the country in the early stages of Australia’s Covid lockdown, she knew OzHarvest – the organisation she founded in 2004, and still serves as CEO of – would have to change overnight.

“We’ve never had to buy the food we deliver to vulnerable people,” Kahn says. “We are buying food now.”

Founded in response to what Kahn calls “the world’s food waste epidemic,” OzHarvest rescues over 180 tonnes of food every week from restaurants, wholesalers, manufacturers and, crucially, supermarkets. The food is either distributed via charities, or used to create meals for those in need.

“In Australia, over seven million tonnes of food goes to waste every year,” explains Kahn, whose goal is to see food waste halved in Australia by 2030.

But while empty supermarket shelves meant less food to be rescued, Kahn says, the devastation caused by the summer bushfires followed by the sudden spike in unemployment as the lockdowns hit, simultaneously created an unprecedented uplift in demand for OzHarvest’s services.

“To say we went into Covid on the backfoot is an understatement. None of us could have imagined the impact it would have on our recipients and on our business.”

Within the first 10 weeks of the pandemic, Kahn explains, OzHarvest delivered the equivalent of 10 million meals throughout Australia. The number of individual recipients increased from five million to over six million.

“The people we service are very demographically varied.” she says, citing at-risk youth, vulnerable single mothers, children in foster care and disadvantaged elderly among the beneficiaries of OzHarvest’s services. “But now we’re working with a whole new range of people who never thought they’d need to rely on these sorts of services.”

“It’s heartbreaking,” the 2019 Order of Australia recipient adds after a pause. “The people we serve are you and me, only for whatever reason they’ve found themselves stretched beyond their abilities and in need of support.”

The Opening Round

Kahn, who was born in South Africa and moved to Australia in 1998, was driven to fight food waste by her experiences in an earlier hospitality career. Founding OzHarvest in 2004, she began lobbying state governments and, in 2005, played a major part in overturning a law preventing restaurants and supermarkets from donating excess food to charities.

Since then, Kahn and OzHarvest have inspired similar models around the world, as well as launching a rapidly-expanding education program for late primary school students called Feast, and opening two supermarkets in Sydney offering free food to anybody in need.

“Sixteen years ago, we didn’t even know the impact surplus food had on the environment,” says Kahn, citing the UN’s findings that if global food waste were a country, it would be the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases after China and the United States.

Funding The Fight

While 2020 has already been OzHarvest’s most unexpectedly eventful year, the roadmap for the rest of the year is just as full. The organisation’s first permanent restaurant is set to open at the end of the year in Surry Hills, created in collaboration with renowned Italian chef (and fellow food waste fighter) Massimo Bottura. The restaurant, modelled on – and named in line with – Bottura’s existing ‘refettorios’ restaurants in Italy, Paris, London, Rio and the US, will offer free lunches to people in need during the week, then open for dinner to raise funds in support of the group’s many projects.

“It’s a bit of a dream come true. It will run on the framework and pillars of [Bottura’s] Food For Soul charity, which is very closely aligned to our values, providing a beautiful space that offers respect, dignity, culture, music and art to vulnerable people.”

Continuing too will be the successful Harvest Bites program, established during Covid to fill a fundraising gap created by the forced cancellation of the OzHarvest CEO Cook-Off in March, which normally facilitates the group’s operations for the year to the tune of around
$3 million. Through Harvest Bites, customers have the weekly opportunity to purchase a meal created by a celebrated chef to enjoy at home, with alumni already including Peter Gilmore, Neil Perry, Lennox Hastie and Jacqui Challinor.

“For every meal someone purchases,” Kahn says, “we can deliver around 40 meals to people in need. You get to eat something wonderful, but you’re also feeding hungry people. It’s very powerful.”

Participating chefs are encouraged to purchase their ingredients for their Harvest Bites meal from their own Covid-struck suppliers, creating what Kahn says is a holistic circle of support.

“Everyone is struggling right now,” says Kahn, whose long-awaited autobiography A Repurposed Life is due for release later this year. “We’re doing our best to try to help anybody that might be falling through the cracks.”

 

>> Ronni Kahn's San Choy Bau Recipe 

Join the cause and fight food waste in your own household with this great recipe by Ronni Kahn.

"Everyone loves this recipe as you can use what you like in the filling, so it's a great one for fighting food waste!"

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