Alan Hartstein
About Alan Hartstein

Alan Hartstein has worked in publishing for over 20 years as a writer and editor across a range of sectors including finance, business, politics, and IT. He has also held senior roles on major broadsheets and magazines such as The Australian Financial Review and BRW.

The period from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, just ended, is a traditional time for reflection in Jewish communities, and the fact that it culminated in a fast is in some ways poignant, given the sheer amount of food that we as a society waste every year.

For those of us who have never given it much thought, the statistics are alarming. Australians throw out roughly four million tonnes of food annually, worth somewhere between $8 billion and $10 billion. Not only does this end up as landfill, it equates to every household throwing out over $1,000 worth of groceries every year.

Australia produces enough food to feed approximately 60 million people, yet two million people still rely on food relief, and nearly nine out of every 10 relief agencies report not having enough food to meet demand. This makes it a three-pronged disaster: we waste about $1000 per family each year; two million Aussies suffer food insecurity and hunger; and the landfill is environmentally destructive.

OzHarvest offers a real and positive alternative
Waste Nation, a 75-minute Mint Pictures production directed by Dan Goldberg, is determined to draw attention to this sorry state of affairs through the eyes of Ronni Kahn, the founder and director of OzHarvest.

Ronni used to be part of Australia’s food waste problem when she ran a corporate events company. Then at some point she came to realise the absurdity of throwing away good food and decided to do something about it.

“When I worked in hospitality, all of my events had lots of food, so I was a facilitator of wastage. But when I slowly realised how much was being wasted, I discovered what my purpose was. I decided the best thing I could do was connect those in need with those who could provide, and the best way to do that was through starting a food rescue organisation.”

Having made that decision, she investigated existing charities such as CityHarvest, that had been operating successfully for over 20 years in New York and, by adopting some of its practices because “there was no need to reinvent the wheel”, she founded OzHarvest in November 2004.

With the help of some pro bono legal advice, Ronni then successfully lobbied four state governments to amend legislation that prevented food donors from supplying excess food to charities.

In the 10 years plus since its founding, OzHarvest has been hugely successful. It now delivers food from more than 2,000 commercial outlets direct and free of charge to more than 800 charities across Sydney, Adelaide, Brisbane, Canberra, Gold Coast, Melbourne, Newcastle and Perth, as well as regional areas through the REAP regional food rescue program.

“We recently delivered our 53rd millionth meal. Every aspect of our business is transparent, we monitor everything we do. In Australia, four million tonnes of food goes to waste, but we are making some difference,” Ronni says.

A flight and a missed phone call
Dan Goldberg has been making documentaries for a decade, ever since his editorial jobs at the Sydney Morning Herald and the now defunct Bulletin went to the wall.  Many of his  films have won awards, including Passport to Hope for Foxtel (winner, 2010 UN Human Rights Award for TV), the Bushwhacked! series for ABC3 (multiple awards, including 2015 Science Award at the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival, Gold Remi at 2015 WorldFest in Houston, silver award at the prestigious Prix Jeunesse in 2014) and Code of Silence for the ABC (winner, 2014 Walkley Award for Best Documentary).

Dan had known about OzHarvest for years through his volunteer work for the homeless and had suggested a documentary to Ronni some time back, as he knew how involved she was in that space. The idea took a different turn when, several months later, he was on an early flight to Melbourne. “The stewardess took my prepackaged breakfast and binned it. When I protested, she said, ‘You have no idea how much we waste.’ The plane landed and I noticed I had a missed call from Ronni Kahn. It was beshert, or fate. I told her, ‘We have to make a doco on food waste’.”

Research to date has not been extensive but Ronni believes OzHarvest saves about 18,000 tonnes a year from going to waste. “It’s good but it’s not enough. We’re in the process of launching a new platform that will involve collaborating with everyone in the ecosystem including government, retailers, food rescue organisations, the farmers’ federation, the catering industry, and all food producers and manufacturers in general.”

OzHarvest is also dedicated to protecting and improving the environment through all its actions, promoting nutritional education, and providing hospitality training and mentoring for disadvantaged youth.

A problem of global proportions
If the situation in Australia sounds bad, then what is going on globally can only be described as catastrophic. Roughly a third of the food produced annually for human consumption (approximately 1.3 billion tonnes) is lost or wasted and consumers in rich countries waste almost as much food (222 million tonnes) as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa (230 million tonnes).

This of course means that water, land, energy, labour and capital are massively squandered, contributing in no small part to global greenhouse gas emissions. This is all happening while the planet struggles to sustain 7 billion people, a number expected to grow to at least 9 billion by 2050.

For example, it takes about 1,000 litres of water to produce 1 litre of milk and about 16,000 litres goes into a cow’s food to make one single hamburger. The resulting emissions from the cows themselves, and throughout the entire food supply chain all end up being wasted.

Huge international need for OzHarvest model
Ronni has made it her life’s mission to take OzHarvest’s unique food rescue model beyond our shores, and its global reputation is growing. “We get asked for advice from people wanting to set up similar organisations every day, and we are currently involved in the launch of similar operations in the UK, Thailand, and South Aftrica.”

Ronni has also been recognised as a leader of entrepreneurship, social impact and innovation, picking up several awards for her achievements along the way, including being named Australia’s Local Hero of the Year in 2010.

Asked what her ultimate goal is, Ronni said, without hesitation: “To put ourselves out of business. Our mission is to educate and transform lives, and ultimately change the way that food is managed globally. That, or course, will involve teaching people to live a more sustainable life.”

Waste Nation aims to increase awareness of the massive food wastage problem by following Ronni in her mission both locally and overseas to make further legislative changes (similar to recent changes in France) to make it unlawful for large supermarkets to waste food, and instead force them to provide unwanted and unused food for distribution to the needy.

Ronni says she’s excited about the prospect of Waste Nation being completed and hopes it will be used as a strong education and advocacy tool that can lead to meaningful change in the way people approach the subject of food and waste. “I hope, for example, that it will be shown in schools so children can go home and discuss the information they’ve learned with their parents.” OzHarvest also plans to promote Waste Nation via its website, media releases, and social media campaigns.

Capturing the zeitgeist
Dan believes there’s growing awareness in the community right now, and he’d love to be an agent for change. “Food waste is ubiquitous and the media has finally come to understand how big the story is. The Pope equated food waste to stealing from the poor. That’s chastening stuff – it’s akin to a moral crime, so when you realise how much waste occurs and how many people here go hungry it is inspiring when you meet someone like Ronni who has committed her life to minimising it.”

The producers of Waste Nation are appealing for funds to complete the project, and as of Friday had raised $82,000 of the remaining $217,000 required, according to the Documentary Australia Foundation website, which also has a trailer available for viewing.

In the lead-up to Yom Kippur last week, Ronni had one final reflection: “It’s important at this time of the year to think about how we can make a positive difference in the world and now is a time for action. We need three things – food, time, and money, and we will gratefully accept help in any of these areas.”

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Alan Hartstein
Posted by Alan Hartstein 1 year ago