Oz Harvest chats about food waste in Australia

Oz Harvest Image credit: Oz Harvest/Benojo

This story first appeared on the Benojo blog on April 7, 2015. Image courtesy of Oz Harvest.

OzHarvest is a perishable food rescue organisation that was established in 2004 by CEO Ronni Kahn (she’s was also the recipient of Australia’s Local Hero Award in 2010).

In 2005, Kahn redefined food donation in Australia when she lobbied the courts and succeeded in having legislation amended so food businesses could donate to charitable causes without fear of liability. We spoke with Lisa Dainty, OzHarvest’s charismatic volunteer and engagement manager, to learn more about their work, and how businesses can get involved. 

OzHarvest at work

The OzHarvest business model is an innovative one. Quality excess food is collected from commercial outlets (think cafes, supermarkets, function centres, food businesses, corporate kitchens, hotels, restaurants, caterers and more) and delivered free of charge to over 600 charities nationally.

“The reason we do it is because in Australia eight to 10 billion dollars of perfectly good food goes to waste every year, which is absolutely obscene,” says Dainty. Homeless shelters, food kitchens, crisis accommodation centres, men’s and women’s refuges, youth groups and support centres are among those that receive the food, which they then distribute to some of society’s most vulnerable and disadvantaged.

“You can essentially think of us as a courier,” says Dainty, “except with food and we do it for free, and we do it with love.”

In the 2014 financial year alone OzHarvest delivered an astounding 7.61m meals, saved 5.07m kilos of carbon emissions, and over 2.53m kilos of food and almost 363m litres of water from being wasted.

A heartfelt connection

On a national level, there are around 1000 volunteers that donate their time to OzHarvest, working in a range of capacities – driving vans, helping out in the office, washing out food containers, representing the organisation at community events and more.

“Our job is to love them,” says Dainty, noting that time is the most precious commodity that volunteers can donate, so striving to engage them and show them appreciation is a big part of the job. As is working with the corporate community. “A large portion of our funding comes from the corporate sector, so it’s really important to not only tap into their money, but also tap into their hearts” says Dainty, noting that while it’s cheesy, it’s true!

“The key way we engage with the corporate community in a volunteer way – so they can touch and feel and get involved – is through a program called Cooking for a Cause, “ explains Dainty, adding it’s a program they have hosted regularly for market-making firm IMC.

“We now have a commercial kitchen on-site downstairs [in their Alexandria HQ] and we have professional chefs who run interactive cooking workshops. But the difference between our cooking classes and others is that you learn about what we do. So we talk a lot about food waste in Australia, and on a global level. We also want to open people’s eyes to the issue of poverty in Australia as well. It’s kind of like team building with a twist. We cook with surplus food that would have gone to waste, turn it into restaurant quality meals and people are always blown away with what we produce.”

Dainty adds: “It’s fun, educational and it’s team building, with that connection to heart. All the meals they prepare are delivered by our vans to the charities we support.”

Kitchen dynamics

Dainty believes cooking also helps bring people together – the ultimate outcome for corporate team building. “Food is the ultimate connecter – because we all have to eat. It brings people together and even if you’re not much of a cook you can still give it a crack and learn. It’s accessible for everyone to try. This is what I talk to companies about. We might get the CEO in the kitchen and the receptionist. Perhaps in their day-to-day interactions there is quite a hierarchy around it or they don’t have too much to do with each other, whatever it might be, but when you bring people into a kitchen and you whack them all in aprons, the CEO perhaps can’t cook, and all of a sudden there isn’t a hierarchy. It makes it a real level playing field.”

The ultimate cook off

Another avenue for companies to get involved is the CEO CookOff. It is OzHarvest’s largest annual fundraising event, held in March this year it involved 120 CEOs and 40 celebrity chefs (including Matt Moran, Maggie Beer, Frank Camorra, Mark Best and Shannon Bennett) cooking for 1000 guests.

“It’s this one-off big event, a celebrity chef has about four CEOS working with them and together they prepare a three-course meal and we have invited 1000 of the people from the services that we donate food to. For them, it’s like a big awesome dinner party, so they dress up for it and come along and there is a red carpet and they’re served. It’s beautiful, there’s music and dancing and it’s a wonderful night,” explains Dainty.

This year, the event raised close to $950k. The plan for 2016 is to have 200 CEOs participate, Dainty adds: “We put the call out there to any business or CEO or senior business leader to get involved.”

Shared values

“I think it’s important for companies and OzHarvest to have the same synergies or pillars,” says Dainty on the need for businesses to have a point of connection with the charities they support.

In the case of OzHarvest, there are both the social and environmental aspects of their work that appeals. They have also recently expanded their work to include new programs: NEST(Nutrition, Education, Sustenance, Training), which aims to improve knowledge and skills around healthy eating choices and food preparation for people in need; and Nourish, a pathways to employment program that gets vulnerable youth aged 16-25 into the OzHarvest kitchen and into hospitality jobs.

“I think it’s also important, that, yes, you can write us a cheque and leave it at that. But I think people want to go deeper, and give the company and their staff a chance to touch and feel and be involved – like they are part of the contribution,” says Dainty.

Citing the many studies that found companies with happy and engaged staff have lower retention and higher productivity, she adds: “As a company you are selling your staff short if you don’t give your staff that opportunity.”