Sikhs in California are appearing as godsends for the people suffering from COVID-19 complications as volunteers in the local Sikh community — has been distributing about 1,400 meals daily for the past four weeks.
Lani Valenzuela says she faces a higher risk of coronavirus and she also cares for her adult brother and two grandsons. But, on a recent morning, Valenzuela donned her large respirator face mask and made a rare trip to the Riverside Sikh Temple in Jurupa Valley, where the United Sikh Mission is delivering free food.
Valenzuela sat in her car with her grandson at the drive-thru and picked up one meal for herself and three other family members. On the menu for the day was vegetable biryani, an aromatic rice dish made with basmati rice, vegetables, herbs and spices.
“It’s like nothing I’ve ever had before,” she said afterward. “But it was very good. These people are really a godsend.” Members of the Sikh community all over Southern California have come out in large numbers to volunteer their time, contribute money and food items to support tens of thousands in the region who continue to suffer the economic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic and stay-at-home orders.
The Riverside operation has been one of the largest in the region, supplying thousands of vegetarian meals to seniors and health-care workers at local hospitals, in addition to the daily drive-thru and distributing groceries and face masks over the weekend, also at the Jurupa Valley temple.
What started out as a smaller operation serving about 175 meals daily outside the temple grew into a significant project that has handed out 40,000 meals over the past four weeks, said Gurpreet Singh, a coordinator with the United Sikh Mission. The food — often rice and lentils seasoned with Indian spices — is made every day at the Spice Jar Restaurant in Fontana and some days at the Aroma Indian Grill in Upland. Volunteers then pack them in microwaveable containers.
The restaurants’ cooks and owners have donated their time every day to prepare these meals, Singh said. They plan to keep the operation going despite the expenses and the work involved. “We believe that no one should go hungry at this point,” he said. “And we don’t really check if people are who they say they are. It’s an honor system. But, when you see people lining up or waiting to receive food, you can really sense the amount of pain and anxiety they are going through.”
They’ve begun partnering with community leaders and churches in the Inland Empire to help supplement meal deliveries. The group also drops off food to seniors in Jurupa Valley, Moreno Valley and Riverside and to area hospitals. Riverside Community Hospital receives 500 meals twice a week, said spokeswoman Cherie Crutcher. The food has been greatly appreciated by everyone from doctors, nurses, cleaning crews and emergency room staff, some of whom don’t go back home to their families for fear of infecting them with the virus, she said.
“For them, seeing this kind of overwhelming support from the community has been really heartwarming,” Crutcher said. “They love the food as well. They really look forward to it every week.”
The spirit of community service is an integral part of the Sikh faith, said Manpreet Kaur Singh, a volunteer with Khalsa Food Pantry in Pacoima, which has served community members in need for nearly seven years. Before the outbreak, they saw about 80 families a week. Now, that number has grown to 400, and organizers expect the numbers to increase even more as businesses continue to lay off or furlough workers.
“One of the main tenets in Sikhism is the concept of ‘seva’ or serving one’s community,” Singh said. “You give 10% of your time and earnings to the community. We’re located in a low-income area. We have the resources to help this community by providing food and a place they can turn to.”
Sikh temples, or “gurdwaras,” all over the world have a centuries-long tradition of community kitchens where food is served to anyone who walks through their doors. The Golden Temple in Amritsar, India, which is considered an important pilgrimage site for Sikhs, has an enormous kitchen that operates around the clock and serves more than 10,000 people every day. Guru Nanak, who founded Sikhism in the 15th century, started the practice of community kitchens, which became places of rest and refuge over the centuries.
The food pantry in Pacoima provides hot meals every Friday in partnership with Los Angeles City Councilwoman Monica Rodriguez’s office, Singh said. In addition to getting nonperishable food from the Los Angeles Food Bank, the pantry also has started a GoFundMe page to raise donations to meet the increasing demand, she said.
Hearing the stories of those who have been affected by the pandemic has been humbling, said Singh, who speaks Spanish.“ A lot of people who come now don’t even know we existed,” she said. “Many families really need help during this difficult time and they are extremely grateful for what we have to offer.” In addition to food and groceries, the pantry also provides feminine hygiene products once a month.
“If you’re a woman, your cost of living is higher just because of your biology,” Singh said. “Being able to afford these products is one less thing women should have to worry about during a pandemic.”
Food in the time of COVID-19
Food has become an important and interesting piece of the COVID-19 crisis, said Gayle Hoxter, Riverside County’s public health program chief. “With more people staying home and some unable to go outside, food has become a major, daily focus amid this pandemic,” she said.
Riverside County has two main food banks and 188 food pantries that receive supplies from those food banks and a variety of other sources, Hoxter said. “We’re seeing a number of organizations and communities — both faith-based and nonfaith-based — stepping up to provide food for those in need,” she said.
The Sikh community is not just contributing with food, but also helping by providing face shields for law enforcement, first-responders and frontline health-care workers. The Sikh Riders of America, headquartered in Bakersfield, just dropped off about 1,000 face shields and 500 face masks for LAPD dispatchers, said Gurinder Singh Basra, president of the motorcycle club and nonprofit.
The group initially got together at the local Sikh temple’s cafeteria to put together face shields for local police officers and firefighters. Soon, they began to get requests from individuals, groups and even hospitals and senior centers. “We’ll do this as long as we have people who need them,” Basra said. “It’s our duty to help the community.”