OzHarvest founder Ronni Kahn on the first time she tried a cucumber

The social entrepreneur talks food waste, her love of lentils, and other formative food moments in her life.
Andrew Finlayson

You were born in South Africa but lived in Israel for 20 years. What are your fondest food memories from your time there?

Israeli food was so different to what I’d been brought up on. There was a big focus on salty flavours and fresh produce. Their street food is so healthy and delicious, and rich with spices like za’atar. We’d eat a lot of salads, yoghurt, labneh and goats’ cheese for breakfast, as well as hummus, tahini and falafel, all of which are still staples in my diet.

How has your religion influenced the way you’ve eaten over the years?

Growing up in an ethnic family, food was always central. In the Jewish religion, on Friday nights you bring in the Sabbath – for us it wasn’t so much a religious occasion but more a ritualistic one.

My whole upbringing, Friday nights were spent sitting around a table, eating beautiful food and just sharing stories with at least 15 other people. My mother was a marvellous cook, but I can remember her being stressed about what she was going to cook every week.

You mentioned that your mum was a talented cook. What kinds of things did you eat when you were growing up?

She was a great cook and often made gourmet meals but I didn’t appreciate it when I was younger. I was a very fussy eater. I grew up on lamb cutlets, chips or hamburgers, and I never ate vegetables. When I first went to Israel, I don’t think I’d ever eaten tomato or cucumber – and then when I tried it I thought: “Oh my gosh, why haven’t I eaten this before!”

OzHarvest recently turned 15. How did you celebrate?

We celebrated with a gorgeous party. It was a fiesta of different foods – all of our celebrations are around food. We had food trucks, a Messina ice-cream stand, and a huge cake shaped like an OzHarvest food truck. We also gave away little goodie bags, which were of course reusable, and reusable coffee cups, too, so everything was sustainable.

OzHarvest rescues over 200 tonnes of food and provides around 8000 meals per week for the vulnerable. What is the most common thing you see going unused?

Bread and imperfect fruit and vegetables that have a freckle are the most common things we salvage. And milk, because people usually look at the use-by date of milk and throw it out before smelling it or tasting it – we’ve lost the capacity to judge it ourselves.

You’re a leader in the fight against global food waste. Do you have any tips for people to minimise food waste at home?

The first thing is, make a shopping list. Look what’s in your pantry and fridge before you go shopping – that will save the average household around $3800 a year. Research shows that out of every five shopping bags of produce we buy, we throw one away; we waste one. Secondly, only buy what you need. And of course, use your leftovers! I like to turn things like leftover roast vegetables into frittatas and soups. Be creative, experiment and have fun with food.

What do you like to cook for the people you love?

I make a lot of dhal, lentil stews and rice, because you can add so many beautiful spices and lots of love into those types of dishes. Middle Eastern mezze is always the best, too.

What’s on the horizon for you right now?

We’re opening a refettorio with Massimo Bottura on Crown St in Sydney’s Surry Hills, so we’re currently working on that. The whole purpose is about creating a space of beauty, of culture, of music, of food, that vulnerable people can come to. It’s going to have solar and a little rooftop garden with edible plants. Lunchtimes will be free for anyone who needs food, and we will open as a restaurant for dinner so that we can sustain the lunch service. Also, my memoir, A Repurposed Life, is coming out in September and I’m so excited!

Since starting OzHarvest I’ve repurposed my life, and that has allowed me to find my true calling. I’m not special; I’m not exceptional – if there’s a lesson to learn it’s that all of us have the ability and capacity to be the best we can be. ●

The OzHarvest x Food For Soul reffetorio is due to open on Crown St in Sydney’s Surry Hills in July. Ronni’s memoir, A Repurposed Life, will be available in September.; @ronni.kahn

Related stories