Why OzHarvest founder Ronni Kahn doesn't want a return to 'normal'

OzHarvest founder Ronni Kahn's meal mission

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HANDS-ON: OzHarvest founder Ronni Kahn is busier than she's ever been with demands for free meals doubling since COVID-19 hit.

HANDS-ON: OzHarvest founder Ronni Kahn is busier than she's ever been with demands for free meals doubling since COVID-19 hit.

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Ronni Kahn offers food for thought on why it's more important than ever to help our most vulnerable, post COVID-19.

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At 67, social entrepreneur Ronni Kahn has never been busier.

Earlier this year, Kahn - a former events management chief executive who reportedly went from earning $50,000 a weekend to $50,000 a year to found food rescue charity OzHarvest - finished writing her autobiography.

Little did South-African born Kahn know then that as one chapter was about to close, another far more unbelievable one was set to change not just her life - and the charity sector as a whole - but everyone around the world.

"I finished just before COVID-19 hit, so there's no mention of that in the book," she said of the memoir, A Repurposed Life: The story of finding your true calling, due out later this year. Kahn said she had never really wanted to write a book, but people had been badgering her about it for years.

"Then my daughter-in-law Jessica Chapnik Kahn, who's also written a kids' book for OzHarvest called Lenny and the Ants, said she'd like to write it. I thought 'Oh my goodness, how can I do this with my daughter-in-law?' But it felt like such a beautiful opportunity. And we're still talking!"

While the memoir does not include the upheaval of the past few months, Kahn said it does include "lessons from what I've learned over the last 15 years".

Ronni Kahn handing out free food hampers from an OzHarvest pop-up hamper hub in Sydney's Waterloo.

Ronni Kahn handing out free food hampers from an OzHarvest pop-up hamper hub in Sydney's Waterloo.

While running her events business, Kahn was horrified by the amount of leftover food being thrown out. She began taking it to a hostel rather than let it go to waste, but knew more could be done.

So in 2004, OzHarvest was born, starting with one van in Sydney.

"The truth is I never had to teach anyone that wasting food is a bad thing. Someone in their family had already taught them," she says.

From there, the charity grew to rescuing more than 180 tonnes of food each week from over 3500 food donors and delivering it to more than 1300 charities, feeding millions across the country.

As Kahn says: "Anyone who needs food, we feed for free".

I never doubted OzHarvest would be very significant and would do good work. But I had no idea of the scale of what I was getting into.

And now, post-COVID-19, the efforts to keep the social enterprise running and Australia's vulnerable fed have ramped up. "I don't think I've worked so hard," Kahn says.

The demand for meals has doubled but at the same time OzHarvest's main source of food supplies - the hospitality industry - took a massive hit.

"From a food point of view the fluctuations in supply for the first couple of weeks was really scary."

The subsequent cancellation of OzHarvest's biggest fundraiser - the annual CEO Cookoff - and temporary closure of its cooking school, where businesses and individuals make meals for distribution, cost the organisation around $6 million.

"We run one of the biggest cooking schools in Australia and pre-COVID this was the only way we would make around 1000 ready meals a week for people who don't have kitchens or the facilities to cook," Kahn says.

"That was closed overnight, so all the revenue that was due to come from that also disappeared."

The lockdown meant recalibrating and working out a different way to get meals to hungry people, "which included a new cohort of people in need".

To meet this, OzHarvest chefs - along with 'Hospitality Heroes' such as restaurateur Neil Perry - set about cooking 10,000 ready meals a week from the OzHarvest kitchen.

Staff were redeployed to help with packing and distribution and in pop-up Hamper Hubs supporting different members of the community.

Kahn also successfully lobbied the government to extend its stimulus package to charity groups impacted by the pandemic and says despite the challenges, she is hopeful for the future.

"I'm completely optimistic that [COVID-19] has fundamentally touched so many lives, in so many ways, that we could never be the same again. And that's a positive thing."

For her, seeing how easy it is to run a business from from home, taking time out for yoga and baking, and not having to wrangle with rush-hour traffic are some of the bonuses of the lockdown.

But, she says, things will never be back to "normal".

"If that was normal, pre-COVID, it's not what we want.

"Where people were forgotten, where people were rushing, where people had no time for anybody or anything.

"I think COVID has absolutely recalibrated us.

"And the only thing I'm worried about is if we forget what we've learned in this time and not take that with us."

How to help

As volunteers around the country are celebrated this National Volunteer Week (May 18-24) OzHarvest has paid tribute to its army of helpers who have been assisting during the COVID-19 crisis.

"During the last few weeks especially, we've seen overwhelming kindness and generosity from our volunteers. They've packed thousands of food hampers and assisted in handing them out in the community to feed people who are doing it tough right now," it said.

While they are currently receiving several messages a day from people who want to volunteer, Kahn said they are unable to accept new volunteers during this time.

"It fills us with so much hope to see everyone banding together to help one another. We can't wait until we can welcome you to the OzHarvest family again soon!

"Right now the biggest help we can get is financial," said Kahn.

Every $1 donated to OzHarvest can deliver two meals.

"But we look forward to working with people in the future who want to donate their time or their skills."

For details on how to donate, go to ozharvest.org or phone 1800-108-006.

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