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‘I do all this for my inner peace’: the Sikh volunteers feeding Melbourne | Melbourne


With the promise of “free food” plastered in large print, Sikh Volunteers Australia vans have become a familiar sight in times of crisis, providing healthy vegetarian meals to people in need, from bushfire victims to the homeless.

So when Victoria was plunged into its sixth Covid lockdown at the start of August, the organisation ramped up its operation, beginning what would become its biggest relief effort yet.

Volunteer Simranjit Singh says the organisation cooked, packed and delivered nearly 80,000 free vegetarian meals in 81 days.

“Every day, around 800-plus meals were going out to people, so you could say that more than 800 people were in need during lockdown every single day,” he says. The volunteer responds to requests for help as well as cooking and delivering meals.

“The phone calls were always coming. Lots of people really needed the service, or they literally would go hungry.”

“It was challenging work,” says volunteer Kamaldeep Singh. “It’s not a small task, but with the help of the volunteers and their selfless service, we were able to make it a success.”

A volunteer stirs an enormous pot at a Sikh Volunteers Australia-run kitchen in Melbourne
A volunteer stirs an enormous pot at a Sikh Volunteers Australia-run kitchen in Melbourne. At the height of the city’s lockdown the organisation was making 1,800 meals a day. Photograph: Daniel Pockett/AAP

Kamaldeep Singh’s role involves answering calls from people in need.

“A pregnant lady called me the other day, crying, saying she didn’t have any food, she couldn’t cook and had tested positive [for Covid] so couldn’t leave. What could she do? We had to help her.

“There are a number of situations like that: people in difficult situations, single mothers, international students, the elderly, the people that were most affected by the lockdown.”

As restrictions eased and demand for its services reduced, the organisation ended its lockdown home delivery service, but is still providing meals to people having to isolate due to Covid. And the Victorian-based charity is now preparing for the next crisis by building a new kitchen and working on plans to expand across the country.

For those behind the service, volunteering and organising community services is central to their faith and identity.

“Being a part of Sikh Volunteers Australia is like breathing to me. I do it naturally now,” says the co-founder and secretary, Jaswinder Singh.

“I have my time, my physical efforts, my devotion, and this is what I share with the community in my volunteer work,” he says, “Fortunately, or unfortunately, I had plenty of time, devotion and resources during lockdown that I can contribute back to the community. And that’s what I was doing.”

Volunteers stir pots at a Sikh Volunteers Australia-run kitchen in Melbourne
‘When we cooked, we’d have four massive pots: two for the rice and two for the curries,’ says volunteer Simranjit Singh. Photograph: Daniel Pockett/AAP

While driven by spirituality, the organisation is underpinned by well-organised systems and an army of 500 volunteers.

It is divided into four sections. The administration arm handles all requests for food, as well as communication with volunteers.

The second team ensures there are enough ingredients; the third team manages the cooking; and the fourth team delivers the food.

This enables them to meet the surging demand and deal with the challenges of lockdown, including panic buying, travel limits and curfews.

Jaswinder Singh, a key organiser in the delivery service, said when the first lockdown happened in 2020, they quickly realised they could not continue to hand out meals at set locations.

“Previously, people came to the vans to receive their meals. But now, because of lockdown, no one can come to us. So we decided, if people can’t come to us, then we can come to them.”

After an initial drop, demand quickly grew.

“On the first day, I remember, the request was like 70 or 80, which was a lot less than what we were used to. But after the first week, it straightaway went to 500 to 600. By the third week, we were cooking like 1,800 meals a day.

“And that’s while we have restrictions on social distancing and so on, and that was a challenge. So eventually we involved technology, we evolved and learned, and eventually we came up with a service that was essential. It was required in abundance.”

Simranjit Singh, a baker by trade, helped with some of the cooking, and says the number of volunteers has exploded, allowing them to cook and deliver more.

Jaswinder Singh
‘It’s heartwarming, what we do, but very stressful,’ Jaswinder Singh says. Photograph: Christopher Hopkins/The Guardian

“We have limited space in the kitchen, so we couldn’t all cook. A lot of the elderly from out in the community were cooking – they came down to help maybe once a week.

“A lot of the time they’d spend time cutting the vegetables, preparing for the next day. And when we cooked, we’d have four massive pots: two for the rice and two for the curries.”

As one of the leaders of the charity, Jaswinder Singh finds it difficult to talk about the people they’ve helped.

“If I start going into details of those stories, it actually triggers something in the back of my mind, something that is hard to stop,” he says. “Its stressful. It’s heartwarming, what we do, but very stressful.”

Despite the toll it may take, there is no question in his mind about continuing to dedicate his time and energy to it.

“I’m a religious person, and for me, when I serve a human being, I am serving the creation of God, and that is essential to me.”

He links his work to his own journey towards inner peace, saying that in sharing and giving, he is connecting with himself on a deeper level.

“I do all this for my inner peace, to gain inner peace. I haven’t seen it, but I want it, and that is what I see as a volunteer. There is no other factor, no other force that can drive so many people towards doing good.

“What I see, what I believe everyone else sees when they do volunteer service, is that peace in their hearts after doing something for someone else, unconditionally – to recognise that I am not just living for myself.”

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