Helping van: Bruce  picks up surplus food then delivers it to various charities.
Helping van: Bruce picks up surplus food then delivers it to various charities. Photo: Steven Siewert

Jane Albert

Disturbing changes are occurring inside the homes of people around the nation: Australians are increasingly going hungry. The Sydney-based founder of food rescue organisation OzHarvest, Ronni Kahn, has noticed an alarming growth in the number of charities needing help.

''We have 120 charitable organisations on a waiting list that we can't get to, and they're just the ones we know of,'' Kahn says. ''We have never had that many before.''

Not only are more people going hungry, the demographic is shifting. No longer just the domain of the homeless, people who could previously afford to put food on the table are now also seeking help. ''There are now more people whose basic needs are not being met. People are working but their money is only covering their rent and not even their basic need of food,'' Kahn says. ''In the past, we were dealing only with homeless people. Now cost-of-living pressures have caused a shift.''

Delivering: OzHarvest founder Ronni Kahn.
Delivering: OzHarvest founder Ronni Kahn. Photo: Peter Rae

Audrey Nable, a community liaison officer at Campbelltown's Lomandra School, agrees. ''We have noticed a greater increase in food relief in our area. This seems to be because of financial hardship and the increasingly complex nature of family breakdowns. Perhaps more significantly, we are noticing the poor nutrition habits of our students and their families. Our students are very reluctant initially to eat fresh fruit and vegetables, and they lack even basic cooking skills.''

This month OzHarvest received a $500,000 grant from the federal government. Rather than direct the funds towards feeding the hungry, Kahn believes the money will be better spent on nutrition education. OzHarvest is about to start rolling out its latest weapon in the fight against hunger and food waste: nutrition education sustenance training.

Nicknamed NEST, the two-year program will initially target 72 charities throughout Australia, with project manager Nick Johnston visiting each organisation to take the managers and charity recipients through a three- to four-week course. A charity that looks after pregnant women and young children, for example, will learn about appropriate nutrition for the mothers-to-be and toddlers, and experiment with tasty, affordable recipes and meal ideas.

Gratefully accepted: Ozharvest deliveries are welcomed with smiles.
Gratefully accepted: OzHarvest deliveries are welcomed with smiles. Photo: Steven Siewert

''We're now delivering quality food to our organisations, but a lot of them don't know what to do with it,'' Kahn says, adding that the pace of life and a ''fast food'' mentality have led people to lose sight of where food comes from and how to create healthy meals.

''We've been fed a diet of convenience and fast junk food. We've lost the art of nutrition,'' she says. ''Some of us are very privileged and can invest time in cooking nutritious food. Not everybody has that luxury. Our goal will be to teach people how to use their money better to make nutritious food. And the economic ramifications are huge: if people eat better, their lifestyle is better, their health is better, and they don't use doctors as much. The ripple effect will be ongoing.''

Good Food spent a day on the road with OzHarvest to observe efforts on the front line of Australian hunger.

Delivering: OzHarvest gives to charities all around Sydney.
Delivering: OzHarvest gives to charities all around Sydney. Photo: Steven Siewert

To many people, Bruce is a superhero. He doesn't have a cape, super powers or a hypersonic jet, but rescuing is what superheroes do best, and that's what Bruce does, too - five days a week.

He rescues good, nutritious food and delivers it to people who would otherwise go without: children who go to school with nothing more in their tummies than last night's dinner, or single mothers who sacrifice their food so their children can eat.

Bruce works for OzHarvest, delivering surplus food to those in need. He joined the outfit in 2005, not long after it began in a tiny office in Alexandria. At the time there was just one operations manager, one van and one driver. Today OzHarvest has 21 vans delivering across four states and three regional centres. Each morning in Sydney, 12 vans head out across the metropolitan area.

OzHarvest is the brainchild of South African-born Kahn, who moved to Australia in 1988 and spent 11 years running Ronni Kahn Event Designs in Sydney, a successful company that nevertheless left her with an overriding feeling of guilt about the leftover food that was thrown out following the functions she ran. In 2003 she decided enough was enough.

''What I knew was good food, and I knew there were people in need. I knew I'd never solve the problem of world poverty, but if I could take the good food I saw and give it to people in need, it would be good. And it seems that it has been,'' Kahn says.

''In that first year we saved 13,000 meals and delivered them to six charities and I thought that was pretty amazing. Except last month we delivered 480,000 meals to 520 charities, so we've grown. We now have vans working around the clock.''

On any given day, Bruce's run sheet could direct him to 20 different pick-ups, including supermarkets, law firms and cafes. Part of his job, and that of the other drivers, is to sort the good food from the bad.

''Sometimes people do try to use us as a dumping ground, but 90 per cent of the time, the food is excess,'' he explains. It's a win-win: the big supermarket chains save on the cost of waste disposal, while the charities receiving the food can redirect funds from buying food to other areas of need.

One misconception that was dispelled quickly during our day on the road was the quality of the food. We collected boxes of fresh bell peppers, bags of bananas and apples, gourmet sandwiches and wraps, containers of fresh chicken salad and stir-fried noodles - food that still had a couple of days before expiring but was slightly misshapen or simply left over from the night before.

Another surprise was that OzHarvest only donates to agencies, not to people on the street. Throughout the morning we visited a men's shelter, a refuge for women escaping domestic violence, and a detox and rehabilitation centre for women and teens and their children. At each stop, the response was overwhelming gratitude.

The social workers in Bondi gratefully accepted the Lebanese bread and vegetables that are so comforting to their migrant residents; the meat and pita bread will be put to good use at a weekly barbecue for the women and children at the rehab centre. ''This is the stuff that gives the most joy - a barbecue on a Sunday night,'' the centre manager says. ''A lot of them have never had that.''

What was also surprising was the suburbs that rely on OzHarvest. Affluent suburbs, such as Kirribilli, Mosman and Randwick, conceal an often-overlooked underbelly of need.

''There are pockets within the wealthy parts; places where people find that after paying their assisted rent and medication bills, they have nothing left. Nowhere is immune. It's quite soul-destroying,'' Kahn says. ''One million kids go to school without breakfast in their tummies, and 2 million Australians don't have three meals a day. They might not even have one meal a day. And that's in this exquisite country that has enough for us all.''

The generosity is astounding. Bourke Street Bakery donates daily; T & R Gourmet Butchery in Double Bay twice a week gives bags of gourmet sausages that aren't even surplus; Earth Food Store in Bondi Beach, on board since the beginning, offers organic food and cereals.

Food is at the heart of what OzHarvest does, and there is no lack of it. This is an area that OzHarvest is striving to redress: waste and the direct impact it has on the environment. There is such an excess of bread, for example, OzHarvest simply cannot take it all.

''We have to be re-educated and understand that just because we want to walk into a supermarket at midnight and have a row of bread to choose one loaf from, that's a problem,'' Kahn says. ''Every time we throw away a loaf of bread, we throw away energy, water and embedded resources that it cost us to make that bread. It's crazy. We need to purchase with our heads and not with our eyes and tummies.''

In addition to the NEST education program, OzHarvest is preparing to move into new premises in Alexandria next year. Donated by founding sponsor Goodman PLUS, the property will house OzHarvest's offices and a commercial kitchen. Kahn's vision - funds permitting - is to use the kitchen to host Nourish, a program to train and mentor disadvantaged youths in hospitality with a view to providing jobs in that industry. It will also be used for team-building events for corporate groups, who will cook excess food before delivering the fresh meals.

Back on the road, Bruce is chatting and joking with a couple of the social workers. With a background in welfare, the 43-year-old says he isn't the type to sit in an office. ''I like the people; they tell you their problems. You're a bit of a social worker, but in a nice way,'' he says. ''And it's doing something worthwhile. There's a need, you can see you're helping people in a silent way. And if you weren't there, they would miss it.''

When the van returns to the warehouse, we've notched up 10 pick-ups and three drop-offs. And that's just one morning run in one part of Sydney. Other vans are doing the same in the north, south and west. Bruce will continue to work through the afternoon before the evening driver starts, bringing a little piece of hope into other people's lives. Just another day in the life of a superhero.

Fast food facts

● Australians waste $7.8 billion of food, or 4million tonnes a year. Put simply, we throw away one in every five shopping bags we buy.*

● One-third of the food produced for human consumption globally is lost or wasted. This equates to about 1.3 billion tonnes.**

● ''If food waste and loss was a country, it would be the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases,'' says UN Environment Program spokesman
Nick Nuttall.

● Since it began, OzHarvest has delivered close to 20 million meals, rescuing food from 2631 donors and delivering it to 520 agencies.

● This has saved 6 million kilograms (or 6000 tonnes) of food from landfill.

● Other organisations working in the food rescue space include Foodbank, Christ Mission Possible and SecondBite.

* ACOSS, Poverty in Australia 2012.

** Global Food Losses and Food Waste — FAO,2011.