There's a scene in Food Fighter, a new documentary about the work of food-waste charity OzHarvest and its founder Ronni Kahn, where Kahn lets us take a look inside her refrigerator. Among the sparse arrangement of jars, bottles and containers, there's a single red capsicum showing signs of age, its skin shrivelled and wrinkly. It's five weeks old, Kahn tells us; she bought it before a stint of overseas business travel and had every intention of using it. Sound familiar?
There are similar moments of fallibility captured by director Dan Goldberg in the film that together illustrate the many links in the chain that leads to food waste in Australia. We see Kahn uncover Woolworths products in a dumpster outside one of their stores, despite the supermarket being one of OzHarvest's major partners and committed to eliminating food waste across their operations by 2020. Farmers are shown discarding blemished bananas and imperfect lemons because they don't meet the quality standards set by the supermarkets. And where do these standards come from? Our own buying habits.
"Every time we reject marked, ugly or imperfect produce, we're contributing [to food waste]," Kahn says.
While the film shows Kahn is human too (although she does compost that lone capsicum), the difference is that she decided to do something about the problem she first saw 14 years ago when she was running an events company and realised the volume of food being thrown away after functions.
"I think of myself as an accidental activist," she says at one point in the film. "I'm doing this because government haven't."
The $20-billion burden of food waste in Australia is shared 50-50 between consumers and retailers, manufacturers and other producers combined, but it's our household habits that OzHarvest is focused on with its new campaign, Fight Food Waste. The message is simple: plan ahead, buy only what you need and make sure you use it. It's good habits like these that can save households $3500 per year, according to Kahn.
"We need a fundamental shift in our thinking and the way we value food," she says.
For her and her team's part, they are working with the big guys on ensuring unwanted or surplus food reaches the people that need it. In Food Fighter, we see Kahn travel to Qantas' headquarters in Sydney to collect unwanted airline meals (although not, to her frustration, any of the dairy products); later she's seen delivering boxes of food to collection points or to the OzHarvest Market, a free supermarket that opened in 2017 and is the first of its kind in Australia.
Next on Kahn's list is getting an education program for nine to 12 year olds included in the national curriculum; it will focus on everything from sustainability to healthy eating, and will hopefully bring change into more homes. There's also an app on the way that will connect those in regional and remote areas with food rescued by OzHarvest.
Despite the frustrating moments in the film – corporations frightened of litigation, a government unwilling to commit money to their food-waste target – it's Kahn's deep well of positivity that helps to create a message that's compelling rather than moralistic or defeatist.
She confesses to feelings of guilt about not staying in her native South Africa to help fight Apartheid as a young woman; it's part of what drives her today to take action on food waste, what she now describes as her life's work. This work has in fact taken her back to South Africa, where a similar model to OzHarvest is about to get off the ground, as well as to the UK, New Zealand and Thailand.
Her message for Australians who may feel powerless to change things? Just do it, whether "it" means starting a one-woman charity as Kahn did or sharing your ideas for reducing waste on social media. "Where we're particularly lucky here is that nobody's going to jail us for talking out or taking action," she says. But first, it's time to tackle those leftovers in your refrigerator.