SYDNEY - When I call Ronni Kahn and introduce myself, she immediately lapses into Hebrew. Although her accent is Anglicized, she speaks it fluently, without hesitation. Finding an interview time is not easy: Finally she slots me in between a television interview and a flight to Melbourne.
I meet Kahn in her house in Bronte, a magnificent suburb on the east coast of Sydney. Her living room is adorned by a huge framed painting by an Israeli artist. She wears an elegant, rather captivating, piece of jewelry that looks like a mangled piece of silver wire.
Kahn is now speaking in English and it is of the fast, confident and flowery variety; I note that she uses the past perfect conditional effortlessly (“If I had known earlier I would have...”). At 57, Kahn is the sort of woman who conjures up a verb: always doing, always in action. Impetuous, is how she describes herself.
But who is Ronni Kahn, I ask her.
“I am definitely Australian and I am also definitely Israeli,” she says. Her clipped South African accent betrays her origins, but this seems to hold less import. “I left South Africa after finishing high school and then spent the next 20 years in Israel.”
It is life on Kibbutz Yizre’el, she says, that shaped her experiences and life. “It cemented my views and values. Although I now live in Australia, as an Israeli you cannot ever really leave Israel.” Her sons, Ido and Nadav, were both raised in Israel and her sister still lives there.
We talk about OzHarvest, the charity she created and now heads.
“In 2004, I had an epiphany,” she declares. “I reached a point in my life where I felt I had to make a difference.” That was basically it.
Then events conspired.
“I was on my way to Israel and decided to stop over in South Africa,” she recalls. “I spent the morning in Johannesburg with a wonderful friend who’s a medical doctor. She was an activist against the apartheid regime and worked tirelessly to improve the lot of South Africans. She suggested I accompany her to check some AIDS clinic that she had set up in Soweto.
“We drove into Soweto – it’s an extraordinary place – when my friend casually mentioned that there’s electricity in Soweto thanks to the work she does with HIV patients. Suddenly, it hit me: It was like a light bulb went off!” She laughs at the pun.
“Here was someone who could point to something tangible she had done and say truthfully that she had made a difference to the world. I thought: What have I done? Nothing.”
(It later emerges that this is not quite accurate; while living in Israel, Kahn volunteered in a shelter for battered women in downtown Haifa.)
“I had a successful business, organizing events, two beautiful children and a lovely home, but I wanted to make a significant difference. This was my call for action. In my business I had always seen vast quantities of excess food being thrown away. Whenever I could, I would take the leftover food and give it to an agency that fed needy people. I knew that there are tons of perfectly good food going to waste every day. I also knew that I could not stop world hunger or poverty, but I wanted to create the missing link between that food and those people who went hungry.”
AND SO the idea was conceived. It was a simple concept. Kahn envisioned a nonprofit food distribution system that would pick up good perishable food from events, supermarkets and corporate functions and deliver it to those in need. Its application proved more difficult.
Kahn first had to engage a law firm to lobby for a change in state legislation so that companies donating food would not be held liable or sued in relation to the food. The law was amended in New South Wales so that it currently falls under the Good Samaritan Act. The law has since been amended in three other states across Australia.
A year on, on November 4, 2004, OzHarvest collected its first meal. “That month we collected the equivalent of 4,000 meals which we distributed among 12 different charities,” she smiles.
And she has much to smile about, because last month – five years on – OzHarvest delivered 125,000 meals to 165 charities, in one single month. “What we collected then in one month, we now do in a day.”
OzHarvest currently boasts six full-time and three casual drivers. Its fleet of refrigerated trucks leaves the office at 8:30 each morning to collect food from supermarkets and bakeries; in the course of the day it picks up everything from leftover tuna sandwiches from a boardroom luncheon to prosciutto canapés from Sydney’s swankest hotels. This goes on until 11 at night, because, as Kahn points out, “there’s food which goes to waste all day, every day.”
“Australians waste over 5.3 billion dollars’ worth of food every year,” Kahn points out sternly. “This amount is comparable to almost all Western countries across the globe. It’s scary when you think about it.”
The charity’s value proposition is amazing; it costs less than a dollar to collect and deliver a meal. “So if someone gives us $10,000,” Kahn simplifies, “I can provide 10,000 meals. It’s as simple as that.”
So far, according to the OzHarvest Web site counter, the charity has dished out more than 4,882,967 meals and is about to hit the five million mark.
By saving thousands of tons of food, OzHarvest has also had a profound effect on the environment. Kahn estimates that her charity has already saved two million kg. of food which would ordinarily go to landfill. “We are feeding people and saving the planet.
“Food is a human theme; everyone has had a mother, an aunt or a grandmother telling them not to waste food because there are people who are hungry. I think we inherently know that we should not waste.”
That, she explains, is why Oz Harvest has been so successful. “It just resonates with everyone. I don’t have to teach anybody. You know, if you tried to create a charity for the blind, or cancer or anything else, if you haven’t been touched by any of those things, well, it’s just another charity. But food, everyone knows how important it is. Everyone has been touched by it.”
WHO ARE the recipients of OzHarvest’s food?
“They come from every age bracket, every nationality and every walk of life. We deliver food to all agencies that cater for the vulnerable. This includes charities offering services to people with mental disability, or those suffering from alcohol abuse; youth at risk or victims of domestic violence. If they offer their services for free, OzHarvest will deliver.
“Most charities have a tough budget to cope with. This frees up money and allows these agencies to provide more and better services to their users. So it’s about dignity, it’s about giving quality, variety and delicious food. It’s about dairy, fresh bread, fresh fruit and vegetables, fresh meat and fish.”
“It’s not always the healthiest,” she adds as an afterthought, “but so far no one has complained when we added the Lindt chocolate cakes to the delivery.”
In January, as part of the Australian of the Year Awards, Ronni Kahn was awarded Australia’s Local Hero for 2010 for her work with OzHarvest – an outstanding achievement for an organization which is only five years old. The award was presented to her by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd at Parliament House in Canberra.
What did the award mean to her, I ask.
“I am so proud, so unbelievably proud,” she replies. And for the first time, her frailer, gentler – perhaps more vulnerable – aspect seems to come out. “This has acknowledged the food rescue services and it has also highlighted the need for this service. It has elevated us in ways I could not have imagined.
“On Australia Day we had over 2,000 hits on our Web site in one day. This is more than we had in the entire four years before. We have received hundreds of applications from people wanting to volunteer. Dozens of new food donors; money has come in.”
She proudly shows me the award and smiles as I admire the large rectangular, turquoise glass slab with gold inlay delicately inscribed with etchings of the Sydney Harbor Bridge and the words of the Australian national anthem. It is, indeed, very impressive.
In the course of the interview her iPhone rings numerous times and a “ping” announces yet another new e-mail in her inbox. She reads the e-mail and smiles. “People love what we do and they send us these amazing e-mails; I can cry a million times.”
She reads out to me one e-mail that she got from an unknown person
going by the name of “an inspirationer.” She agrees to read it out to
“For Ronni and your incredible organization. I just have to tell you
that as I write this tears are running down my face. What an incredible
inspiration you are Ronni. You are a brilliant shining star in this
world and a beautiful human being. I do hope that one day soon I will
be able to volunteer soon and be part of OzHarvest somehow.”
She is visibly moved as she reads it aloud.
“I feel like I have won the lottery of good fortune,” she finally declares.