Feeding the masses – Daily News


“Seva” is alive and well in Pacoima.

Every day it’s what fires up the giant cooking containers full of rice and pasta. It’s what powers the assembly lines of volunteers from all over Southern California who package meals — curry, thai, pasta and a sweet treat with a bottle of watter —  atop rows of tables.

Manjit Singh and Jarnail Singh add onions to garlic as they make pasta sauce for hot meals at the Khalsa Care Foundation for 3500 seniors and the disabled on Tuesday, June 16, 2020 at the Pacoima gurdwara. Five days a week volunteers, not all Sikh, prepare the meals for those who have been in lockdown during the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

It’s what gets those meals to households from Palmdale to Long Beach to Pasadena and Los Angeles, where the pandemic still draping the region has crushed livelihoods, left families struggling and kept seniors and disabled isolated.

Seva —  or “selfless service” — is happening at the Khalsa Care Foundation Gurdwara — a Sikh temple that’s served the area for 15 years.

The massive amount of food prepared and distributed every day here is nothing new for a community of faith whose tradition of selflessness goes back centuries. They know how to feed the world, and it’s happening from New York to India. Amid the chaos of COVID-19, and even among deep social pain and unrest sparked by the death of George Floyd, local Sikh Americans have found renewed energy, across the Southland and also just off Laurel Canyon Boulevard in the northeast San Fernando Valley.

One day, it’s preparing and serving up meals to waves of protesters on L.A.’s streets. The next, providing much-needed meals to struggling families in Palmdale.

And so on, every day of the week. No strings attached.

No proselytizing. No preaching. No preference for a person’s position in life. Just goodwill and a sticker on the lid of each meal’s plastic tray that reads: “Sikh Community Lending a Helping Hand.”

The goodwill was recently tapped by LA leaders, who teamed up with the Gurdwara (translated as temple) for a new goal. The center was already hosting a once-a-week drive-thru hot meal program, and since its beginnings 15 years ago it was preparing hot meals for homeless shelters and other non-profit organizations.

The center’s food pantry has gone from serving 75 families pre-pandemic to more than 400 amid the outbreak. They are really good at this.

But responding to the call from the Mayor’s Office and the city’s Department on Disability , starting Monday June 15, the center ramped up its daily meal preparation of 3,500 meals each day through Friday until July 3.

In the last 10 weeks, the center has prepared more than 105,000 meals. Another 51,000 meals will be prepared in the next three weeks alone. The all-volunteer effort has attracted not just members of the temple — but people from varying faiths and organizations.

Jaspreet Singh, who leads the latest initiative, and whose family runs the Pacoima center, was incredulous on a recent morning as he watched an army of more than 50 volunteers make and package 3,500 meals in record time — even for a community that knows how to organize mass food distributions.

“We’ve never done so much seva,” he said, anticipating an entire morning to cook and prepare the meals. “We we’re done by 10 a.m. It was insane. I never thought this would happen.”

But on the temple’s campus, things were happening, you could sense it in the air as the smell of curry wafted through the site. On Monday, a community kitchen space known as a langar, where free meals are served to all visitors, became the domain of volunteers. They are eager to do what they do after months of a public health lockdowns that have shut down the region, including places of worship.

They are people like Anjeza Durollari, of Santa Clarita, a non-Sikh who after a trip to India in February came back inspired to serve. She found the Pacoima temple and immediately tapped into a routine of volunteering and even finding some time afterward to meditate in the center’s gurdwara.

“I looked for a place like this,” she said. “It’s about unity,” and in the midst of a pandemic “it’s sort of brought everyone to one level.”

The center is also leveraging the goodwill of its members in the Sikh community. Many, Singh noted, own such businesses as sandwich shops and convenience stores, where treats such as cookies and donuts can be procured to satisfy the sweet tooth after each donated meal. They’ve secured 6,000 cookies a week from Subways, he said.

The meals go from the Sikh center to about a dozen L.A. Department of Transportation buses each day — and there’s definitely a few available during the pandemic — and from there they go to the L.A. Zoo, where a fleet of Access Paratransit vans deliver to households. Those households are where disabled and senior residents and their families receive the meals, said Lourdes Sinibaldi, community outreach director referrals and education for the Department on Disabilities.

Sinibaldi said the Khalsa Care Foundation was vital in making the city’s effort happen. With limited funding and resources, the foundation’s volunteerism helped meet demand across the city. The city, by the way, picks up the tab for the meal containers and the bottled water that comes with each meal.

“For us, they are very significant,” she said, noting a Citibank grant that helps the city pay for its share and also noting the city’s need to essentially build an infrastructure of partnerships with the city’s Fire Department, the L.A. Zoo and others to help get the food people at their homes.

The Sikhs were vital in that chain, Sinibaldi said.

“Without them we’d not have been able to do that.”

Singh said L.A.’s pandemic moment was sparking partnerships that will help the city for the long run.

“In this pandemic, if anything is going to happen, all walks of life, whether you’re sick no, no matter what race, what gender, we all need to come together and help our community. This is our home. My kids are going to grow up here. Generations are growing up here.”

Going back to the little sticker on the hot meal, it’s also a reminder, of sorts…

Singh has grown up watching his own family’s effort to squash negative stereotypes about who Sikhs are.

As a faith, it was born in 15th Century northern India — a faith that became one of the world’s largest religions, with 30 million adherents. Among their core beliefs are a reverance to the equality of humanity and a striving for justice, goodness, humility and Seva.

But in the U.S., the Sikhs ran into ignorance about the meaning of the turbans they wear — an apathy that led to reports of discrimination and hate crimes in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

A national 2013 survey of public perception of Sikh Americans conducted by Stanford University and the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, found then that about half of the public associated the turban with Islam and believes that Sikhism is a sect of Islam. A 2012 study by the Sikh Coalition found that 67% of students wearing turbans were bullied in school, compared with the national average of 32 percent of all children ages 12 to 18, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

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