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President Amanpreet Singh Gill and Director of Operations Raj Sidhu at the Dashmesh Cultural Centre where they hand out food made by volunteers to community members in need, in a practice called Langar in Calgary on Dec. 23, 2020.Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

When the country first went under lockdown in March, Raj Sidhu knew that his Sikh temple in Calgary would have to find a way to keep its free kitchen running.

Like many Sikh temples around the world, the Dashmesh Culture Centre runs a langar – a community kitchen – that provides hot vegetarian meals to anybody who needs one, regardless of race, religion or creed. Since the 1980s, it’s provided free food to thousands a people a day, 24/7.

“Early on, when we knew our centre wasn’t going to operate like it normally did, but people were still coming for meals, that’s when we knew this could be something bigger and a big opportunity to help the community,” said Mr. Sidhu, the centre’s director of operations.

“Langar is a very pivotal aspect of our religion. Nobody should go hungry.”

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Community volunteers make food for people in need as part of Langar at the Dashmesh Cultural Centre in Calgary.Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

The serving of a free meal is a religious practice woven into Sikh tradition. And now, as people deal with losing their jobs and food banks struggle under the pressure of the pandemic, temples all over Canada are looking for ways to continue the tradition and broaden their reach.

At the Dashmesh Culture Centre, COVID-19 restrictions meant taking things on the road: The temple began offering takeout and delivery. During the first wave of the coronavirus, hundreds of volunteers delivered up to 50 meals a day to people in isolation – some in cities that were nearly an hour’s drive away. More volunteers staffed the temple’s commercial-sized kitchen and handed out hundreds of meals to visitors through a drive-in service.

Since the start of the pandemic, the temple has provided roughly 80,000 meals throughout the Calgary area, Mr. Sidhu said, adding that the demographic served has grown. Before, most people using the langar were of South Asian descent and would eat after regular visits to the temple. Now the food goes to people from all backgrounds – especially elderly people, students and single mothers. For many, daal, roti and vegetarian curries have never before been part of their diet.

“The food is going to people who really need it, who don’t have a regular steady source of food,” Mr Sidhu said. “So it’s turned into a major food security issue and we’re very happy that we can provide for that.”

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Volunteers package food for people in need at the Dashmesh Cultural Centre in Calgary, Alberta, December 22, 2020.Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

Not every temple has been able to get the word out about their langar as successfully as the Dashmesh Culture Centre.

At the Khalsa Diwan Society in Abbotsford, B.C., Jatinder Singh Gill said they used to serve roughly 100 people on weekdays and 1,000 on weekends. That number has dwindled to about 50 a week, even though the society is still offering free takeout meals. Most people who use the service are truck drivers and homeless people.

“If more people heard about us and came, we would feed them. We would even drop the food off to their houses, we have a car to use,” he said, speaking in Urdu. Donations and food supplies are still flowing into the temple, and they’re eager to provide food for anybody who needs it, including shelters or hospitals.

They have the capacity to make hundreds of meals, Mr. Gill said.

“All we need is people to provide for.”

Andy Sandhu, general secretary of the Okanagan Sikh Temple echoed the sentiment, adding that temples throughout British Columbia would be happy to give away raw ingredients too, if that would help people.

“If anybody needs food, they can tell us,” Mr. Sandhu said. “Any local Sikh temple can cook the food and deliver.”

Many Sikh communities, including the Khalsa Diwan Society, are giving their vast supplies of non-perishable supplies – such as rice, lentils and flour – to food banks, which are facing challenges such as staff shortages and shrinking donations.

In Calgary, the Dashmesh Culture Centre started its own food bank. Mr. Sidhu said that the community is committed to providing food support no matter how the pandemic affects closings.

The temple, located in a part of northeast Calgary that is home to a large Sikh population, came up with the slogan “No Hungry Tummy” and blasted it throughout social media, where it caught on. Connections with municipal, provincial and federal governments also helped get the word out.

Volunteers were able to continue social distancing while 15 to 20 people worked in the kitchen at once, Mr. Sidhu said. There hasn’t been a single outbreak at the temple throughout the pandemic.

Demand at the centre slowed in the summer when the economy was bouncing back, but things are getting busy once again.

“Now with the cases going up again, we’ve noticed that the demand is still there,” Mr. Sidhu said.

He chooses to see the positive in the situation, calling it a blessing in disguise because the wider community now knows that the temple is able to help anybody who is struggling with food insecurity.

“Post-COVID, the message will be there that we’re still here to help, that these meals will never stop and if you’re in need, please visit us and the meals will be provided.”

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