Sarah Flomersfeld – OzHarvest – Ep 21
Sarah Flomersfeld, NSW Operations Lead at OzHarvest
In this episode of “Let’s Talk Farm to Fork”, we’re joined by Sarah Flomersfeld from OzHarvest, who we will be talking to about how their Not-for-Profit, has been a useful tool in both saving food supplies & educating others in reducing the annual food loss & waste numbers across Australia.
[00:00:00] Mitchell Denton: Hello, and welcome to “Let’s Talk Farm to Fork”, the PostHarvest podcast that interviews people of interest across the food supply chain.
Today on our show, I’m joined by Sarah Flomersfeld from OzHarvest, who I’ll be talking to about how their not-for-profit has been a useful tool in both saving food supplies and educating others in reducing food loss and waste numbers across Australia.
So with no further delays, let’s get started. Hi, Sarah, how are you?
[00:00:26] Sarah Flomersfeld: I’m well, thank you. How are you?
[00:00:28] Mitchell Denton: I’m doing pretty good. Thanks for joining me on the podcast today. Before we get into it, I just want to give you the opportunity to tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do, and while you’re at it, just the fun fact about yourself that most people don’t know.
[00:00:41] Sarah Flomersfeld: Ooh that most people don’t know? I’m a pretty open book, so that’s going to be tricky. Um I am the New South Wales Operations Lead for OzHarvest, which means I work on operations and food logistics. The nuts and bolts of getting food out to people who really need it, uh, which over the past year has focused on responding to the huge increase in need.
So during COVID we saw a lot more people experiencing food insecurity and we had to massively scale up our operations, uh, and a fun fact about myself. I can write backwards.
[00:01:12] Mitchell Denton: Wow!
[00:01:13] Sarah Flomersfeld: Like a mirror image of normal writing.
[00:01:16] Mitchell Denton: So, sorry you have to help me wrap my head around that a little bit more.
[00:01:20] Sarah Flomersfeld: So imagine if you held a piece of paper up in the mirror and how it looks backwards, I can actually write like that.
[00:01:26] Mitchell Denton: Like, seamlessly, without pause? Just…
[00:01:29] Sarah Flomersfeld: I can in cursive and also printed letters. Um, yeah, misspent I think I was 14 or 15. I’d heard that someone could do it and I thought. “Oh, that person sounds interesting and intriguing”.
And I, you know, what 14 year old doesn’t want to be interested and intriguing? And so just a skill I’ve retained to this day.
[00:01:47] Mitchell Denton: Now we just need to find an avenue that, that skill is highly valuable. Anyway, on that note, let’s talk farm to fork.
Would you mind telling us about OzHarvest’s journey from its humble beginnings to becoming Australia’s leading food rescue organisation in the fight against food waste?
[00:02:06] Sarah Flomersfeld: Sure. So in 2004, our CEO and founder, Ronni Kahn was running an events business.
And in the events business, they would cater large amounts of food. And at the end of the day that food would go in the bin. And Ronnie saw this as an opportunity. So one day she grabbed a whole bunch of leftover food and took it to a nearby homeless shelter. And she started doing that after every event.
And after a while she got some funding and she got some volunteers and she started with one van, um, and it became what is now a national food rescue operation. So we have a large fleet of vehicles that drives around and picks up food from, um, large supermarket chains, from restaurants, from major events and delivers it to charities who can then redistribute that food to people who really need it.
So we’re that connection between surplus food that would otherwise go in landfill and people that really need food.
And over the last 18 years, we have scaled up to have a national presence. We now rescue over 10 million kilos of food every year. We share our intellectual property internationally as well.
So we’ve contributed to starting UKHarvest, SA harvest in South Africa, KiwiHarvest and a few others. We love sharing our model and our ideas. Um, and as an organisation we’ve also evolved. So, in Sydney for example, we have a rescued food supermarket, which operates on a “take what you need, give if you can model”.
So anyone who’s just in need of some groceries that week can come to our, our OzHarvest market in Waterloo just get a bag of groceries. And if they’d like to make a contribution, they can, but there’s no pressure.
And there aren’t many places out there that do that, no questions asked and certainly no where that’s using rescued food that otherwise would have gone in landfill.
[00:03:57] Mitchell Denton: I didn’t realise that your model was being used internationally. That’s fantastic.
[00:04:01] Sarah Flomersfeld: In a handful of countries that we’re aware of, but on a regular basis, people reach out and say, how can we replicate this? Our focus is solving the problem here at home first, but we’re very happy to help people learn about what we already do here in Australia.
[00:04:16] Mitchell Denton: Hmm. So, OzHarvest consists of four main pillars around food, including food rescue, fighting food waste with knowledge hubs, education through hands-on classes and innovation. Would you mind expanding on these different areas?
[00:04:31] Sarah Flomersfeld: So here at OzHarvest we’re passionate about food and we look at it through a few different angles, all of which come back to our dual goals of reducing food waste and also fighting food insecurity. So you mentioned education. We have three education programs that are all about, um, increasing life skills around healthy eating, raising awareness about food waste and strengthening community connections.
So one is, uh, um, it’s called Feast, it’s a curriculum aligned program that teaches children in grade five and six, about how they can connect more with food and waste less food as well. Our Nest program is about teaching adults, particularly from vulnerable backgrounds to cook and eat healthfully on a budget.
Uh, which is very topical in Australia at the moment with the cost of living increases and on Nourish program offers hospitality training, and employment pathways for vulnerable youth. So we’ve got those three education programs, but we also are all about educating the general public as well. Particularly in the need to reduce food waste.
So over the last year, we’ve invested in advocacy projects to fight food waste. So those in Australia may have seen our billboards that talk about how food waste is a major contributor to climate change.
And they might’ve also come across our “use it up” tape. So we developed, this proprietary product called “use it up” tape that is all about helping individuals use up the food that’s in their pantry or in their fridge better as a tangible action on climate change.
We also work in the food relief space. Uh, so when COVID happened, we saw a dramatic increase in need. So we started purchasing food and delivering food out to people that have been hit hard by COVID, but also by other disasters, Bush fires, floods, et cetera. Um, and innovation is a theme through everything we do.
So we have a social enterprise called For Purpose Co. Which in my home state of New South Wales is best known for its juice for good machines. So they are like giant vending machines that take oranges that are imperfect, perhaps not up to spec for supermarkets. You press a button and it creates a freshly squeezed orange juice all the profits for that go back into OzHarvest.
So we’re looking for ways to sustain our business so that we can keep supporting more people and keep reducing more food waste.
[00:06:52] Mitchell Denton: Yeah. Wow. That’s awesome. What are some of OzHarvest’s biggest goals? And what are some of the current challenges that need to be overcome in order to reach those goals?
[00:07:01] Sarah Flomersfeld: So, at OzHarvest, we say that we want to put ourselves out of business and that like living in a world where good food is valued, not wasted. And also where no one gets hungry. But to be a bit more specific we’re really committed to the national target that Australia has of halving food waste by 2030, which is in line with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
So 2030, that’s only eight years to go. And a lot needs to change at all levels of society in order for Australia to meet these goals. So that means we’re going to have to change our behaviours in the home. And we’re going to have to connect those dots between food waste and climate change. And OzHarvest is also increasingly lobbying government to tackle food waste and food insecurity together.
And this is where I get to put in my plug. Obviously do that, we need sustainable funding. Um, and one thing I love about working at OzHarvest is how much we can achieve with a quite small amount of money. So for every dollar donated to OzHarvest, we can deliver two meals to people in need.
[00:08:06] Mitchell Denton: That’s awesome. So as a lot of listeners of the podcast would have heard by now, fruits and vegetables have highest food loss and waste numbers. it comes to the food recovery of fruits and vegetables, what are some of the requirements in order to effectively give fresh produce a second life?
[00:08:24] Sarah Flomersfeld: So let’s start within home. And you’re absolutely right. That fruit and vegetables are one the top wasted items in the home.
A third of national food waste happens in the home. So this is a massive problem. Um, that all of us can, can contribute to the solution for. What we find either buy too much or they don’t check their cupboard or fridge before shopping. So I mentioned earlier, our “use it up” tape. And I I’d love all of your listeners OzHarvest, “use it up”, and get a free tape sent to them.
We encourage people to do things like that, to use more of the food that they already have. Um, and crazy thing is that the average household in Australia spends $2-3,000 on food that is wasted. So if we stopped all food waste, every household in Australia would have $2-3,000 more in their bank account every year.
[00:09:16] Mitchell Denton: Yeah, wow.
[00:09:16] Sarah Flomersfeld: And 70% of that food is perfectly edible. So this is a really easy fix that if we can change some of the behaviours in the home, um, including how to store fruit and veg how to give it a second life, um, that is actually a meaningful impact on climate change. On the farms, look, the, the tragic issue is that nearly half of all fruit and veg grown on Australian farms never makes it off the farms.
Sometimes it’s just too expensive to harvest. Sometimes they’re unable to get the seasonal labour that they need. Sometimes price changes at the supermarkets make it uneconomical to to send the food to the supermarket in the first place. And also specs as well, I mentioned specs earlier.
Sometimes supermarkets have very rigid specifications around. Bananas have to look a certain way. No, one’s going to purchase a slightly bruised Tomato. And so that’s something that we all can do as consumers purchasing ugly fruit and veg. Um, but also there’s a broader problem there that farmers have to tackle.
If it’s uneconomical for them to move the food off their farms, how can they rescue it? So, um, one of the best ways that we can give fresh produce a second life is by government and industry coming together and finding more ways to get surplus food off the farm so that it doesn’t just get plowed in.
[00:10:33] Mitchell Denton: Yeah. Wow, continuing this thought as someone who has personally worked in kitchens for years, I’d hear all kinds of rumours and myths around the legality of donating leftover food. Are there any misconceptions around food recovery that you’d like to clear the air on?
[00:10:50] Sarah Flomersfeld: Absolutely. And the short answer is you do not have to worry about this. So in 2004, our CEO and founder Ronni Kahn worked with a group of pro bono lawyers to get the laws changed. And she started in New South Wales. So the civil liabilities amendment act means that in New South Wales, it is safe for food to be donated without fear of liability and other states followed suit.
So that is not something that organisations should worry about or individuals.
Basically any business or company with edible surplus food should make sure it gets donated. Either by OzHarvest or via local organisations. We can help connect companies with local charities in their area. Um, but you do not have to worry about liability.
[00:11:34] Mitchell Denton: Okay, good to know. So whether it be within Australian homes, grocery stores or restaurants, what would you identify as being one of the biggest pain points or blind spots when it comes to food waste?
[00:11:47] Sarah Flomersfeld: I think the biggest blind spot is how directly food waste is contributing to climate change. Food waste globally is responsible for 8-10% of global greenhouse gas emissions. And we know that in Australia, 30% of that’s happening in the home.
So in Australian homes, I think in addition to not understanding that by wasting food, we’re directly contributing to climate change, we’ve also lost the art of cooking creatively.
I think sometimes we think that cooking creatively means following a Yotam Ottolenghi recipe that involves ingredients that you’d never heard of before. We’ve lost the art of looking at what you’ve already got and making a recipe yourself. Or following a recipe and knowing how to substitute things that are in there.
Um, and we love working with organisations and corporates. Um, we have something called “Cooking for a Cause” where we bring in organisations into our offices around Australia.
And as a team building exercise, teach them in our kitchens with our Chefs, teach them how to cook with the rescued ingredients and had to breathe life back into things to restore that art of cooking. I think with grocery stores, restaurants and the commercial side.
You mentioned the laws earlier. Obviously there are still some misconceptions about those laws and everyone’s nervous about liability. I think a lot of these organisations just haven’t sorted out the infrastructure and the processes they need. And that is a one-off thing to just think about, okay, do we need an extra fridge?
Or maybe every Friday we drop the food off to this place around the corner, taking 30 minutes out of your week as a once off to think about what can we do? How can we get this food out and give it a second life? Um, It’s a short-term investment that as I keep saying, meaningful action against climate change.
[00:13:40] Mitchell Denton: Absolutely. So, you touched on this earlier, but has the COVID pandemic and quarantine for better or worse, had any effect on your day-to-day operations and while we’re on the subject, has there been any notable change in consumer habits during this period?
[00:13:56] Sarah Flomersfeld: So, in early 2020, our ability to rescue food went down. You’ll remember what it was like in Australia then there were closures of events, restaurants, et cetera. There was panic buying, there was supply chain challenges, and this coincided with an unprecedented increase in need. So we saw people seeking food support for the first time in their lives.
And that meant that there was a large gap there. So we secured temporary government funding to purchase food to try to meet that need. And every lockdown we would see a massive spike in need. So these purchase food programs, I mean, OzHarvest is a food rescue organisation. We are driven by the desire to reduce food waste.
We don’t want to purchase food, we want to do everything with rescue food because there is enough food out there to feed everyone. But in this crisis situation, we had to start purchasing food.
So we pivoted our kitchens to start cooking meals, to go to organisations that support people who can’t cook for themselves.
We started packing emergency food relief hampers. We also started delivering fruit and veg into regional communities that have been hit hard, not just by COVID, but by bush fires and floods and drought and isolation.
So we had to pivot our operations to focus more on the second part of what we do, which is reducing food insecurity.
Because last year one in six Australians experienced food insecurity.
Unfortunately we are returning to a business as usual context that is a much higher level of need than pre-COVID. A lot of people have been, if not permanently then in the medium term, set back by this economically, socially, in terms of their mental health, physical health, et cetera.
So the need now is still much higher than it was pre-COVID. So that, that was probably the, the largest pivot for us, um, moving into the emergency food relief space, but there were also some operational challenges that we had to overcome. So we had to curtain off different parts about operations, so that a COVID case didn’t shut us down.
And you’ll remember, um, in different jurisdictions around Australia, the rules were very strict around if you’re a close contact or a close contact of a close contact, constantly changing.
We didn’t want one person with COVID to shut down our ability to feed tens of thousands of people every week. We were operating multiple warehouses and those teams were not allowed to see each other face-to-face.
And if we had to hold a meeting face-to-face, which is very unusual, but it would be outdoors, fully distanced. And, even today with the Omnicron surge, that’s currently going on in New South Wales, for example, um, we are finding that at any given day, we wake up and it could be up 30% of our staff are unable to come to work.
[00:16:54] Mitchell Denton: Hm.
[00:16:55] Sarah Flomersfeld: So it continues to be a challenge in different ways. Um, the supply chain issues affected us as they’ve affected everyone else. If there’s not much food in the supermarket, you can guarantee there’s not much on the back dock of surplus food for us to rescue.
[00:17:10] Mitchell Denton: Yeah.
[00:17:11] Sarah Flomersfeld: So it has been two years of constant adventure for us.
[00:17:16] Mitchell Denton: Hmm, I bet. So what’s on the horizon for OzHarvest then? Where, where’s research focusing most right now?
[00:17:25] Sarah Flomersfeld: Uh, I’d say there are two things that we’re really focused on at the moment. So the first is, how do we shift the dial for food waste in the home? How do we create long-term generational behavioural change to change people’s relationship to food?
And to reduce the amount of food that people are wasting in the home?
Um, and we’ve commissioned some world-leading research in this area to look at what are the behaviours that have the highest impact, but also the highest probability of working in response to a behavioural change campaign.
So we would like to see behavioural change campaigns happen nationally across Australia just a broad-based campaign, not different to the things like Slip, Slop, Slap, or Keep Australia Beautiful, that we grew up with.
Um, that that was still effective, right? Changing the way we thought about an issue, um, whether Up or another slogan, we need to have some sort of broad-based change to the way we think about food waste. Also that needs to be matched by education in schools as well because you know, Children, the Future, et cetera.
And then the second thing that we really focused on is working more with primary producers. So 22% of food waste in Australia happens at the farm. And I touched on some of those issues earlier, it’s really tough with Farmers.
Like, if, if you can imagine how much you and I hate food waste, imagine being the farmer that grew that food in the first place.
How frustrating that must be, how heartbreaking it must be for it to be either uneconomical to harvest or have no way to get the food into an urban centre to sell it.
So there are some changes that need to happen at the government level. To make it more economical for farmers to donate food. And the number, one thing that we want to see is a tax credit for farm food donations. So that if you have a surplus yield of 20 tons of Blueberries, you can deliver that to a food rescue organisation like OzHarvest and claim that back as a tax credit.
And that’s a really meaningful economic stimulus measure for regional communities as well. So there are a range of benefits to this and a business case has been done. I think it was by PWC.
It is, it’s a no brainer and it’s something that we’re, we’re looking for the next Federal Government of Australia to take on.
And that tax credit should also cover the logistics because a lot of the time you’ve got large logistics companies that have empty vehicles moving from one place to another across Australia, because they’re on their way back or they’re on the way to get something.
First of all, if there were tax incentives for them to pickup that food um and drop it off to a food rescue organisation or regional hub that can then send the food out into the community. But also if there was a platform where they knew that that food was out there and, and that they could contact the farm and say, great, we’ll be there in 24 hours. That would reduce many of the large blockages, um, to reducing food waste in Australia.
And it would also be enough food to meet almost all charity needs across the country, in regional areas and urban areas as well. So some relatively simple changes to the legislation, the taxation system.
Obviously these are big, complicated things, but in the context of climate change it is a reasonable ask and it will actually move the dial. So yes, we’re keen to work with more primary producers and we’re keen to work with the government to incentivise those primary producers and help them get the food off the farm because food shouldn’t be going to waste. It should be filling bellies.
And that’s what farmers want to.
[00:21:12] Mitchell Denton: Yeah. Yeah. I’m excited to see how both those ventures turn out. So is there a particular group or innovation within the industry that you’re excitedly keeping a watchful eye on?
[00:21:22] Sarah Flomersfeld: You know what I can’t name one. There’s no one group that I was single out, above all others. Um, I think a lot’s happening in this space. And I think the things that I’m excited about are any innovation involving primary producers.
So, anything that’s helping farmers get the food off the land faster, more effectively, and any improvement to the cold chain.
So Australia’s cold chain has a range of, of challenges it’s complex, it’s um, expensive. So I think the, the innovations that are going to have the most impact over the next few years will be around the cold chain and around reducing food waste from primary producers.
[00:22:01] Mitchell Denton: Yeah, fantastic. So unfortunately, Sarah, we are coming to a close, but before we do, I just want to ask you, what is the number one takeaway you really want the listeners to absorb from this episode?
[00:22:13] Sarah Flomersfeld: So, food waste is responsible for 8-10% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Reducing food waste starts in the home. So if you use it up, if you waste less food at home, that is the single biggest thing that you as an individual can do to, to meaningful action on climate change.
And I’m going to sneak in a second. OzHarvest is only able to do what we do through valuable donations from individuals and organisations and with one dollar we can deliver two meals.
So please jump on our website, give what you can, um, because we’re having a real impact. We’re fighting climate change and we’re feeding people who need it.
[00:22:54] Mitchell Denton: No, that’s fantastic. It’s a good place to leave it. Well, that’s all for today’s episode of “Let’s Talk Farm to Fork”. Thanks for listening and thank you Sarah for joining me today.
[00:23:04] Sarah Flomersfeld: Thanks for having me.
[00:23:05] Mitchell Denton: If you’d like to know more about Sarah and OzHarvest, check out the link in the description of this episode, make sure to subscribe to the podcast so that you never miss an episode, and don’t forget to leave a review and share with your friends.
Until next time you’ve been listening to “Let’s Talk Farm to Fork” a PostHarvest podcast.