First published on 10 May 2012.
It’s fitting that the new offices of OzHarvest back onto Sydney Park, the former rubbish tip today transformed into the city’s biggest public park. For not only has Ronni Kahn’s bold food rescue service put food in the bellies of millions, it’s saved three million tonnes of food from landfill.
Today, OzHarvest headquarters is humming from new digs, twice as large as those before. There’s no furniture, lots of unspooled wiring, boxes spilling awards of all colour and size, plus piles of food donations scattered everywhere. But the primary power source is up and running: loud, laughing and festooned in jewellery and horn-rimmed glasses, Ronni Kahn is busy taking calls, marshalling troops and devouring the day.
“OzHarvest isn’t just filling empty bellies,” Kahn reminds Time Out, “it’s about restoring dignity, caring and sharing within a community, and empowering people by investing in them.”
Ronni knows just how tenuous and poisonous power can be. She grew up in Johannesburg under the shadow of Apartheid. Her father was an architect until a car crash hospitalised him for two years and her housewife mother had to bake more than 100 cakes a day to make ends meet.
“My food delivery life started then, aged seven, with a shelf full of cakes in the back of the car and a lot of hungry people waiting,” she laughs.
At 17, Ronni won a university scholarship in Israel where she studied art, English and History. Her Jewish faith remained omnipresent, “in so much as I upheld values honouring humanity such as Tikkun olam – ‘repair the world.’”
Ronni arrived in Sydney with no job or money, her husband and two young sons in tow. She scraped a living as a florist in St Ives where her flair for flowers and innate nurturing skills won many hearts. Time to smell the roses? Not Ronni. She launched an events management business. Success and money rolled in.
“But flowers die, money disappears and, at every event, so much food got thrown away,” Ronni recalls.
“Even though I was living fabulously well, I had the realisation I wasn’t put on this Earth to buy more shoes and earrings.”
Visiting a friend in South Africa, Ronni was driven through the Soweto slums whereupon her friend spoke of bringing electricity to the camp. “I thought, ‘Wow, what must it be like to know you’ve changed the lives of four million people?’”
A seed was sown. Ronni came home and set up OzHarvest, seed-funding it herself until talking some kingpins into donating a couple of trucks and lending her Alexandria office space for free. “I was on fire!” she says. “In that first month we zigzagged our van all over Sydney, haranguing chefs and shops, to serve 4,000 meals through 13 charities. Last month? We served over 340,000 meals through over 420 charities!”
Next? Global gut-busting. Kahn has Africa, Hungary and Singapore Harvests ready to go. But she’ll never stop serving Sydney’s poor. And nor, it seems, will Sydney stop helping her do so. “It’s a tough town, yes,” says Kahn, “but there’s such abundant generosity here too. Every week another 60 people call wanting to volunteer. I tell them we are all leaders but we only have now to make a difference, so let’s do it together.” AF
Donate or volunteer? www.ozharvest.org.