• Because of the pandemic, the need for OzHarvest's services has spiked by 50 per cent. (Nikki To)Source: Nikki To
The pandemic has cost OzHarvest millions in lost revenue. The charity is still feeding the vulnerable – but it requires some help.
Lee Tran Lam

14 Apr 2020 - 12:45 PM  UPDATED 17 Nov 2020 - 6:17 PM

You can't solve your problems with a giant, party-sized pan of paella, but it can help raise $106,040 for people in need of nourishing food.

At the CEO CookOff, the annual fundraiser of food-rescue charity OzHarvest, chefs and businesspeople fire up thousands of meals for the disenfranchised.

In 2018, PwC and Miguel Maestre produced a mega amount of the Spanish dish, eliciting more than $100,000 for the charity. That same year, Merchant Group's Andrew Chapman attracted $302,500 in donations.

The CEO CookOff all-star hoped to match his record at this year's Sydney fundraiser. He travels from Perth annually to take part and knows how vital the event is.

Ronni Kahn CEO and founder of OzHarvest poses with Chef Miguel Maestre during the Oz Harvest CEO Cookoff on March 19, 2018 in Sydney.

Since 2004, OzHarvest has rescued 44,000 tonnes of food and delivered 120 million meals to people in need – and the CEO CookOff raises essential funds for this.

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Founder Ronni Kahn says, "It sets up our annual budget to the tune of $3.4 million." 

With OzHarvest cleverly spinning two meals out of each dollar it receives, that event can generate nearly 7 million meals for the vulnerable.

But in early March, as coronavirus cases exploded globally and Italy instituted a nationwide lockdown, the fundraiser slated for 30 March clearly couldn't go ahead. "I didn't see how we could hold this event," says Kahn.

As Australia announced more public-gathering restrictions, OzHarvest had to cancel more revenue sources, such as its Cooking for a Cause classes. Suddenly, it was staring down $5 million of lost budget, which meant 10 million fewer meals for the needy, just when they required it the most.

Volunteers take part in a previous CEO cookoff.

With Australia going into lockdown and businesses closing doors, OzHarvest also became inundated with produce. "We collected nine tonnes of fresh food from The Star in Sydney and the Gold Coast, three tonnes of food from Virgin Airlines as they shut," she says. "But that's over, that's gone."

To make everything last longer, OzHarvest has turned these ingredients into minestrone and other dishes that can be frozen, generating over 5,000 meals a week.

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Travis Harvey, OzHarvest's executive chef, says, "They're individually portioned and easy to freeze: an easy meal to help those without access to a kitchen."

Need for OzHarvest's services has spiked by 50 per cent, because of the pandemic.

OzHarvest has been using ingredients to make frozen meals.

The organisation supports 1,300 charities, including Will2Live, and its founder Will Hawes has witnessed a huge demand for services, particularly from "new faces that he's never seen, that are now experiencing homelessness," says Kahn.

People turning to him for support are coming from further away. "Because many organisations have closed, there are only a few left that can keep supporting the homeless community," she says.

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Katherine McKernan, Homelessness NSW's chief executive, told The Guardian the "noticeable increase" in people sleeping rough because of the pandemic has "gotten to a critical point".

To help, OzHarvest is handing out hampers from its supermarket and it also wants to create small community hubs, so people can avoid queues and collect food with dignity.

OzHarvest's model has been forced to change but it's committed to providing meals to the needy.

There’s OzHarvest’s #HereforHope campaign, too, which she hopes the public will support. “If 100 more people gave us $5, that’s 1000 more meals that we can deliver.” 

"I'm incredibly hopeful," she says. OzHarvest's $5 million shortfall has been met with a $50,000 donation from Hello Fresh and $1 million City of Sydney pledge, which brings promising news. "I see the most exquisite acts of kindness."

She recently ran into a grocer, late at night, to avoid crowds and to minimise health risks (the 67-year-old lives in one of Sydney's biggest coronavirus hotspots). At the checkout, she reached for her wallet and realised she'd left it at home.

"It made me think what it's like, how it's important to always have respect and dignity for every act of kindness."

The queue was growing and she felt anxious. Kahn asked the cashier if she could work something out, as the store was closing in five minutes, but was told she'd have to return another time. Kahn started emptying her cart, distraught.  

It has been a humbling experience for Ronni Khan.

"Suddenly, two metres from me, a couple said: 'We've got this, don't even think about it, we've taken care of this'," she says.

They told her, 'if we could, we'd give you a hug'. Kahn cried all the way home.

"It was very humbling being on the receiving end of charity," she adds. "It made me think what it's like, how it's important to always have respect and dignity for every act of kindness."

For more info about #HereForHope and to donate to OzHarvest, visit ozharvest.org. OzHarvest has also launched new online resources for their primary school program FEAST: learning about sustainability, food waste and healthy eating at home. For more information and to sign up for the free online resources, head to ozharvest.org/feast.


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