Renu Sodhi can remember very clearly the day she came back from surgery at the hospital. She and her husband Harinder were sitting on the sofa of their Brampton home – both hungry, exhausted and craving some home-cooked Punjabi food.
Mrs. Sodhi suggested they get Indian groceries delivered. “And we got the food, but who was going to make [it] I was so tired after my operation and [Harinder]can’t stand for very long because of his leg problems,” she said.
The elderly couple would have signed up for the local Meals on Wheels program, but the idea of eating shepherd’s pie or beef stew makes their stomachs squirm. They would rather have their fill of roti with some sabzi (vegetables) and dal (lentils).
It’s a complaint that Nirpal Bhangoo, a caseworker with the Punjabi Community Health Services, often hears when she makes her rounds visiting seniors at their homes.
“Many of my clients would prefer eating South Asian food because it’s been a part of their diet their whole lives,” Ms. Bhangoo said. “You can’t really expect them to change at that their age.”
The Greater Toronto Area’s South Asian immigrant population has grown by about 50 per cent between 2000 and 2006. That’s why PCHS is trying to drum up support for Langar on Wheels, a South Asian variation of the Meals on Wheels program, which would likely bring food from the langar, the Punjabi word for the communal kitchen in a Sikh house of worship, to the homes of Brampton, Mississauga and Malton seniors. The organizers say Langar on Wheels will be the first of its kind in the GTA and possibly even Canada.
“What this Langar on Wheels program shows us is that we need to rethink the way we give … that it has to be responsive to the needs of our community,” said Eileen MacKenzie, the executive director of the Community Foundation of Mississauga, which provided a $30,000 grant to PCHS in early December. “As our city’s demographics change, we need to respond to those needs.”
And indeed, cultural variations of Meals on Wheels programs are emerging in popularity – with programs for Chinese, Greek, Italian and Indian seniors cropping up all over the world in countries with large immigrant populations, such as the U.K., Australia and the U.S.
As the GTA’s demographics changed, Meals on Wheels programs have similarly adapted. Kosher Meals on Wheels was likely the first cultural program when it was launched for Toronto’s growing Jewish community in the 1920s, said Inna Dantchenko, who runs the Circle of Care’s kosher meals program. Now, volunteers deliver some 82,000 meals along the Bathurst corridor.
And following several waves of Asian immigration to Canada, the Health and Home Care Society of B.C. launched one of Canada's first Chinese Meals on Wheels programs in 1996. The program now serves approximately 150 meals every weekday in Vancouver and Richmond, delivered by Chinese-speaking volunteers. Similar programs have cropped up in Calgary, where it’s known as “Chopsticks on Wheels,” and Toronto.
PCHS will launch Langar on Wheels in January. The funding the community group has received is earmarked for cooking utensils, consultations with a dietician, providing “culturally appropriate” food free of charge to the 25 seniors who have expressed interest.
Kulbinder Saran Caldwell, the advancement officer at PCHS, says she expects the demand for this kind of Punjabi food delivery to grow.
“There is a lot of stigma when you say you can no longer take care of yourself, that you can’t cook for yourself,” Ms. Saran Caldwell said. “But I expect that as we get the word out, more seniors will sign on and the demand will explode.”
The Sodhis tried to make do with frozen foods and eating at the langar at their gurdwara, or temple. But the frozen foods are not healthy or tasty, they say, and Mrs. Sodhi said she felt guilty going daily to the langar, where vegetarian food is provided for free.
“How can we take without giving back?… It doesn’t feel right. We want to be independent,” she said.
The concept of a seniors’ food program is perhaps odd for South Asians given the norm of seva, or care for elderly parents in South Asian culture. But the Sodhis say values inevitably change in Canada. “In India, children selflessly serve their parents. When they are old, they take care of them,” Mrs. Sodhi said. “But here, who has the time? All the kids are so busy with their work. It’s just different. I feel so guilty asking them for help when I know they don’t have time.”
Women are also expected to manage the kitchens by themselves in some traditional households, Mr. Sodhi explained, saying his son dutifully brought him food every day while Mrs. Sodhi was in the hospital. But he stopped providing home-cooked meals when Mrs. Sodhi got home, even though she was unable to actually move around the kitchen.
“I don’t think we want to suggest that the families of these seniors are uncaring,” Ms. Saran Caldwell said. “But there are limited resources available, especially for newcomers who are sometimes trying to hold down multiple jobs or doing shift work to make ends meet. This is a city of immigrants and our seniors are part of the extended South Asian family, so we have to respond to their needs as well.”
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