From farm labor to food trucks, Sikhs adapt langar to serve the masses during a pandemic

Aid from local volunteers, including Sikh groups in the area, has at least helped “take the sting out of COVID,” Mann sa...

(RNS) – In northern New Jersey’s Ramapo Mountains, the coronavirus has hit the Ramapough Lenape Tribe hard. But deaths, job loss, food insecurity, isolation and mysterious sickness are not new to the tribe.

“We’ve been suffering from our own quote-unquote COVID-19 for 60 years,” said Chief Vincent Mann, head of the Ramapough Tribe’s Turtle Clan. “So this has really been wearing us down.”

The Indigenous community has fought for recognition of its tribal status. It has seen racism and discrimination. And it has faced deadly health disparities, environmental crises and legal challenges caused by decades of illegal, systematic toxic waste dumping by the Ford Motor Company. Thousands of tons of toxic paint sludge contaminated the watershed where Ramapoughs drank water and the woods where they foraged food, devastating the tribe and causing rare cancers.

Aid from local volunteers, including Sikh groups in the area, has at least helped “take the sting out of COVID,” Mann said.

Since the onset of the pandemic, volunteers from the Guru Nanak Mission in Oakland, New Jersey, and the Sikh non-profit Khalsa Aid — which connected with the tribe through Four Directions Mutual Aid, a group supporting Northeast tribes during the pandemic — have delivered thousands of pounds full of culturally sensitive food items, baby formula, diapers and other supplies to the tribe...

...Ensuring access

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, many gurdwaras are finding that they have to tweak their strategies to better assist locals during the pandemic. 

Langar traditionally involves serving prepared hot meals. But as many hospitals and other organizations will not accept cooked food due to hygiene reasons, some gurdwaras have shifted to offering groceries, food staples or food prepared by local restaurants. 

As Khalsa Aid, which collaborated with the Ramapoughs, expanded its work to 14 more states during the pandemic, the group has focused on improving access to food in rural and other underserved areas.

“We’ve been trying to connect to vulnerable communities across the country that have been neglected, or maybe aren't able to tap into government resources or aren’t near healthy food options,” Amritpal Kaur explained. “There are a lot of gurdwaras doing the usual langar and Sikh food pantries giving food. But what about people who live in rural parts or don’t have cars?”

Some groups, like United Sikhs, have set up hotlines to connect individuals in need to meals and groceries. Drive-through, pick-up and drop-off food distribution have also become common solutions, both to increase access to food and to prevent gatherings of people that could spread the coronavirus.

From Detroit to Des Moines, some Sikhs have been delivering pizza to hospitals and first responders. In Virginia, the SevaTruck has served 20,000 free meals — two or three times their typical rate — in a two-month period since the outbreak began. Because of school closures, which mean some kids now do not have access to breakfast and lunch, the meals-on-wheels non-profit is visiting some locations to distribute meals once a day.

At the Gurdwara Dasmesh Darbar in Salem, Oregon, volunteers used to prepare langar every weekend in the temple’s community kitchen. Now, even as weekend services have stopped, the free meals have not. Twice a week, volunteers deliver 100 to 150 meals to health care workers at Salem Hospital, cancer patient groups, local police stations and fire stations.

“We’re kind of in our natural habitat,” said volunteer Pawan Kaur, 28, who is founding a local group to get Sikh youth involved in seva. “We’ve been doing this from the start of our religion; it’s nothing different for us.”

The only change, Pawan Kaur said, is that gurdwaras are now actively searching out and delivering meals to those who are in need of the food rather than simply leaving their langar halls open to everyone. Before, the langar meals mostly stayed within the gurdwara’s own congregation.

“This has helped us open our eyes to the community that really does need the langar,” Pawan Kaur said. “Not everybody has the transportation to come eat the food that is provided on Sunday. But now we know that we can go out of our way and deliver the food to people that need it.”

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