The founder and CEO of food rescue charity, OzHarvest, Australia’s leading food rescue organisation, Ronni Kahn AO, believes that everyone has within them the ability to change the world for the better. And it’s sometimes the simple ideas that have the most currency.
South African born, Ronni, who is on the cusp of 70, has an unforgettable presence. With her platinum hair, owl shaped glasses and her penchant for always wearing the OzHarvest’ shade of yellow, she’s like a beautiful sunflower bursting with light.
Ronni Kahn is one of Downsizing’s most Inspirational people because of the way her life has been “repurposed” and for everything that she has achieved.
A Roman Feast Was The Catalyst For Change
Certainly her life changed course in a most unexpected way. She was once the party queen of Sydney’s affluent eastern suburbs. For 17 years she presided over some of the city’s most lavish weddings, milestone and corporate events. Her mantra was that all of her settings had to look abundant and of course, food was key. Ronni Kahn’s feasts would not have looked out of place at the Palace of Versailles.
“I was very good at over-the-top,” she says, with a laugh.
Then one night, back in 2002, she organised a Roman-themed corporate banquet for 1,000 people.
“There were wheels of parmesan cheese, mountains of oysters and prawns, meats and wine by the barrel,” she recalls. “But at the end of the night, very little had been touched.”
She couldn’t bear to throw it away, so on a whim, she packaged it up, loaded it into her van and drove to the only charity she knew.
``It was the `Matthew Talbot’ in East Sydney and it was around 2 in the morning when I arrived. But there were still lots of people around and I found someone in charge and asked if they would take the food. It was gladly accepted,” she recalls.
This was her epiphany.
“It was like a veil had been lifted,” she explains. “I thought to myself, `I can do this’”.
Oz Harvest Didn’t Happen Overnight
It would take another seven years before she could give up her day job but she continued to donate the leftovers to various charities after each event with her hosts’ permission. Then finally, OzHarvest was up and running with just one refrigerated van.
Granted there were a few speed bumps along the way with legislation put in place to prevent the charity from collecting unwanted food. It was a question of liability. But Ronni Kahn is a person who thrives on challenges, so she fought this with a team of lawyers who were prepared to work pro bono and won.
“I never take no for an answer, “ she explains.
Soon everyone was getting behind OzHarvest including supermarket chains and major restaurateurs, along with many of Australia’s top chefs.
Pictured: Craig Reucassel, Ronni, Neil Perry
Society’s Marginalised Are Always Treated With Dignity
Not so long ago, Ronni was back organising a massive banquet with these chefs but this time it was her clients who were the recipients of her abundance. They were treated to the best food and celebrated in a night, which helped to put the focus back on the charity and food waste.
Ronni Khan has now provided millions of meals for people right around Australia with an army of volunteers. She is now working with the United Nations Environment Program to combat food waste. She is also working with the government here and key stakeholders to halve food waste nationally by 2030, as a member of the Federal Government’s National Food Waste Strategy Steering Committee.
``It’s about people and the planet,” she says, “when food is dumped, it goes into landfill and amplifies the climate crisis.”
Pictured: Oz Harvest volunteers
This September, Ronni Kahn turns 70 but she has no plans to slow down,as there’s so much more to be done, especially as the pandemic, coupled with rises in the cost of living has resulted in even more people going hungry.
“Covid was a wake up call for those who never ever thought they’d fall through the cracks,” she says. “We started to see 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 your employer shutting down and suddenly you’ve spiraled into not being able to pay your mortgage, pay your bills, or look after your children,” she explains. “Most of us are three pays away from struggling.”
Ronni Kahn also believes that everyone can do something about food waste and that by simply making a shopping list and being aware of what you purchase can save around $1,000 every year.
It’s Never Too Late To Achieve
She didn’t find her true purpose in life until after the age of 50 and so she says that it’s never too late for anyone to change the course of their lives.
“If you have an idea to do something and it brings you joy, then you should pursue it,” she says. “If you can’t make it happen by yourself, then collaborate with someone else.”
There are no barriers. Even the act of volunteering at a charity a couple of days a week, can enrich your life, she points out. And OzHarvest has many mature age volunteers.
“I’d say be brave and courageous because all you have is now,” she explains. “You might think that you could stay doing what you do and it will give you security, but we have no idea what’s around the corner.”
“Life is too short not to live your days in a purposeful, meaningful, joyous and enriched way.”
About Ronni and OzHarvest
Today, OzHarvest is Australia’s leading food rescue organisation. With Ronni at the helm, a dedicated team of nearly 200 staff and more than 2500 volunteers share her devotion for the cause. The charity has grown under Ronni’s stewardship from humble beginnings in Sydney to delivering food and educational programs across Australia and the charity’s model has been shared globally; now established in New Zealand, South Africa and the United Kingdom.
You can volunteer and/or find out more about Oz Harvest here