The Australian organization that turns waste food into healthy meals is now feeding the hungry in South Africa

The Australian organization that turns waste food into healthy meals is now feeding the hungry in South Africa

On a strip of sunlit grass, between Table Mountain and downtown Cape Town, an excited group of people gather as midday approaches.

There are men, women, old men and young men who are lively, oppressed, and still optimistic.

They all have one thing in common – they are hungry.

As the iconic Noon Gun takes off, a wave of energy ripples through the crowd: lunch is about to be served.

In the service’s dining rooms across the road, cans of lentils were emptied into a steaming high-protein soup for 250 bellies.

The crowd makes short work of the meal and then disperses, re-accommodating the city’s shelters, streets and doorways.

“The food is great, absolutely fantastic,” said Edward van Meulen, who works regularly in the soup kitchen.

“Maybe they give you a nice bowl of homemade food, food we don’t usually get.”

After lunch, Edward van Meulen spends the rest of his day reading comics in the library.(ABC News Mary Lloyd)

Had the canned lentils not been put into the soup, they would have gone to a landfill somewhere on the outskirts of a city where millions of people go hungry every day.

Instead, they were turned into a soup kitchen by S.A. Harvest, which found surplus food headed for the trash and redirected it to those in need.

The South African organization is the brainchild of Australian Ronnie Kahn, who developed the model when she founded Oz Harvest in Sydney 18 years ago.

Two men in hats are talking while sitting next to each other on the slope of the hill.
The number of hungry people in Cape Town has increased since the arrival of COVID-19.(ABC News: Mary Lloyd)

Every year, she said, 6 million people need help getting food in Australia.

“[In] In South Africa there are 20 million people who need food every day.”

So the problem is huge and the challenges are huge.

full circle

Ronnie Kahn grew up in Johannesburg and partly attributes her South African roots to what she created in Australia.

“My experience growing up in South Africa, seeing inequality, seeing discrimination, knowing there was hunger was part of the value system that got me started Oz Harvest,” she said.

Now that impulse is over.

A woman wearing a hair net stirs a large amount of steamed food.
Without the food that soup kitchens provide, not many people in Cape Town would find anything to eat.(ABC News: Mary Lloyd)

To launch her model in South Africa, she enlisted her childhood friend as CEO.

It started with a single Baki (Afrikaans for Ott) and a small advisory board.

Within three years, the organization has grown nationwide and now has staff in four counties.

According to Ozzy Nel, Chief Operating Officer of Cape Town, SA Harvest has already served 28 million meals.

But he said that with one in five people going hungry in South Africa, the problem was bigger than the solution.

“That doesn’t mean the food isn’t there,” he said.

“More than 10 million tons of food goes to landfills (each year).”

A man in a black shirt holds apples to another man in a blue jacket.
Ozzy Nel checks the quality of apple crates that could have been discarded.(ABC News: Mary Lloyd)

Unlike OzHarvest, which gets much of its food from supermarkets with produce on the cusp of expiration, SA Harvest does not yet get food from retailers.

Instead, it relies heavily on agricultural products – fresh fruits and vegetables that supermarkets or exporters reject.

Neil said many farmers have contracts with retailers who may look at a single slab of produce, not like what they see, and pick up the entire crop.

“He will bring it back to his land because he doesn’t want to lose the contract,” he said.

Waste and want

What a retailer refuses can be a welcome meal for several hundred people.

When ABC visited the SA Harvest warehouse on the edge of Cape Town’s sprawling towns, large containers of near-perfect apples were sorted into boxes for patrons.

A man holds seven red and pink apples.
The food that SA Harvest diverts from landfill is of good quality, nutritious and in high demand.(ABC News: Mary Lloyd)

Another 15 tons of produce arrived later in the day.

None of it stays long.

Priscilla Mbabani arrived in an empty pickup truck that was quickly loaded with trays of apples, corn meal and bags of rice.

A woman carries a crate of apples into a truck.
Pricilla Mpambani collects food from SA Harvest to feed hundreds of people in her mother’s soup kitchen.(ABC News: Mary Lloyd)

“We’re seeing healthy food that can help someone else eat a meal and go to bed with food,” she said.

“They’ll be so happy they won’t even know they’re going to get lost.”

She helps run Masijonge, her mother’s soup kitchen that feeds more than 100 children and adults in Nyanga.

Mbabane said many of the people who ate had no other food source.

SA Harvest is now building a digital platform to collect data from organizations like Masijonge so it can efficiently match food demand with excess supply.

You see, Ronnie Kahn, that’s the gist of what I’ve created here: taking advantage of surplus food and giving it to vulnerable people.

“I knew the time would come when … we would have a model that could be used in South Africa,” she said.

“I sleep great at night knowing they do.”

A woman with short gray hair and thick-rimmed glasses smiles as she looks up.
Rooney Kahn credits her South African roots for what she accomplished in Australia.(Supplied: Toby Burroughs)

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