Ronnie Kahn’s beachside home is brimming with boho charm, like the free-spirited OzHarvest founder and CEO herself. Her 1930s Bondi apartment is dominated by a cheerful open-plan living, kitchen and dining room that’s decorated with repurposed midcentury furniture and an eclectic and very personal collection of art, including a drawing by her four-year-old grandson, Lev. The room opens onto a small deck where Kahn tends a compact vegetable garden, compost bin and worm farm. Her life’s work, rescuing food waste, very much starts at home.
Few women in Australia are as admired as Kahn, the former event producer and “party princess” who, concerned by the food waste at her events, found a way to connect the excess food with hungry people. These days, her charity is an international organisation with thousands of volunteers, major corporate partners and engagement from leading hospitality figures, including the chefs Neil Perry and Massimo Bottura. Her acid-yellow OzHarvest vans have become a fixture of the urban landscape, dashing about our cities, rescuing excess produce from cafes, bakeries and supermarkets and delivering it directly to people in need.
In person, Kahn is warm, spiritual, energetic, grounded, salty and intolerant of inanity. Named Australia’s Local Hero at the 2010 Australian of the Year Awards, Kahn was born in Johannesburg during apartheid to parents who were first-generation South African. She raised her two sons, Nadav and Edo, in a kibbutz in Israel before emigrating to Australia in 1988.
“You think you could never love anybody more when you have your first child,” she says. “When you have your second child, you know there’s enough love for both, and then suddenly when you see the offspring of your offspring, I think there’s something completely magical about that.”
Kahn has six grandchildren from her sons’ blended families: Beau, 10, Jasmine, six, Lev, Lalita Rose, two, Shemi, seven months, and Rishi Bear, 10 months. One family lives in Sydney and the other is in Byron Bay, New South Wales, which means their grandmother — whom they call “Safi”, a diminutive of the Hebrew word for grandmother (safta) — travels north whenever her OzHarvest commitments and public-speaking schedule allow.
“I know I play a big part in my grandchildren’s lives,” she says. “I’m always aware that I didn’t have that. I didn’t have a grandmother who was a role model for me.” Kahn never knew her father’s mother, Sarah, and her maternal grandmother,
Kate, is not remembered fondly. “We didn’t like her very much,” Kahn says. Her mother’s father, Jacob, was Russian and ran a successful cattle station outside Cape Town. Kate was an elegant, sophisticated city woman who had to adapt to life as a farmer’s wife. She was closer to her other grandchildren, who lived in the village. “All she ever did was compare us — me and my sisters — to those children,” Kahn says. “She’d come and visit our house and we’d be terrible. She insisted on tidiness, and I totally recall throwing my slippers from one side of the room to the other and never making the bed. It would just be to rile her.”
In 2020, she released “A Repurposed Life”, a memoir she co-wrote with her daughter-in-law, Jessica Chapnik Kahn. It’s an entertaining manual on how to live a “value filled” existence.
“Each and every one of us in our lives has a moment when we say, ‘I wish somebody would do some- thing about that,’ and maybe that somebody is you,” Kahn says of her transformation from “privileged schmuck” to environmental warrior.
A force of nature, Kahn, who appears ageless, is sometimes mistaken for the American style maven Iris Apfel because of her short hair, statement glasses and layering of flamboyant accessories, which she buys mostly at op shops these days. “I try to have very simple clothing that you can zhoosh up with scarves or jewellery. I certainly do love those things,” she says. Growing up, Kahn was taught to be thrifty (she was restricted to three pairs of shoes. “Ronni, you’re not a centipede,” her mother, Sylvia, would tell her).
She says she hasn’t hit the glass ceiling in business but experiences ageism in her daily life. Just recently, she felt “transparent” when she walked into a showroom to buy a car and was ignored. When she chose to stop dyeing her hair eight years ago, Kahn says, “It triggered a very strong reaction in my then husband. He didn’t cope with it very well — he couldn’t hack grey hair.” They ultimately divorced.
“For me, it freed me and made me feel, ‘Hallelujah! I never again have to go spend three hours in a frickin’ hairdresser.’ It was the best thing I ever did for me, and it made me feel that I was absolutely my most authentic self. But it really was confronting for a lot of people.” Kahn points out the ingrained gender bias. “Look at Richard Gere. Look at every man who is considered a silver fox.”
She adds: “Ironically, every article that has been written about me since I started OzHarvest — given that I started when I was 50 — has always started with ‘Ronni Kahn, 50’, ‘Ronni Kahn, 55’, ‘Ronni Kahn, 60’, ‘Ronni Kahn, 63’. I have never seen an article about
a man that says, ‘John Howard, 79’.” Today, as Kahn travels around in her yellow van for OzHarvest, she sees firsthand the struggles of older women suffering hunger and home- lessness. She encounters many grandmothers on the street, trying to hold their families together. Kahn describes three women she recently met, each from very different back- grounds, all without a partner and caring for their grandchildren. “They themselves had been through strug- gles and were now trying to fend for young people,” Kahn says.
At her home, guests sit around a large table that extends to seat 14 — enough to accommodate the family when they get together for Friday night dinners and other occasions. Last Passover, there were a couple of welcome strays, too, with a total of 17 at the table. “I’m ethnic, I’m Jewish,” Kahn says. “My culture is, ‘load the table, make people feel welcome!’ ”