An organization long involved in helping feed people in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES) now has a permanent location in the community.
Guru Nanak’s Free Kitchen (GNFK) celebrated this weekend as the charity took possession of 245 East Hastings St., a big step for the group of volunteers.
GNFK began as an idea in 2006 when some like-minded people in Vancouver’s Sikh community decided they wanted to help the community; at the same time there wasn’t really a Sikh presence in the DTES says Raman Khaira, a longtime volunteer and one of the directors with GNFK. He’s also spent a decade working in the DTES.
Sikhism includes langar, a communal kitchen, and seva, the practice of selfless service (two concepts taught by Sri Guru Nanak Dev Ji, the founder of Sikhism and the organization’s namesake), so meal service seemed sensible for the group.
The first service was more than a decade ago, with volunteers using their own vehicles to transport food from the gurdwara to the intersection of Main and Hastings. That’s been essentially the same practice over all these years, but it has evolved, with services becoming more frequent (they’re weekly now) and more efficient (they even have a large truck to serve food out of).
Each week they hand out 500 meals to hungry residents on a regular basis, with other events interspersed throughout the year. These include distributing cupcakes to shelters in November, a December toy drive, and a food rescue program with area grocery stores. To date they’ve served over a million meals.
“Over the years, through trial, we were able to get a better handle on how to provide meals to the community,” says Khaira. “The meals are simple and basic, rice, a curry of some sort, kheer (rice pudding), and chai tea or juice.”
Early on, he notes, there was some culture clash as some receiving the meals found the food too spicy.
“They’re very common dishes,” he says. “Every mom and grandma knows these menus.”
Now they plan on a big expansion with their new property; there are plans to renovate it to create a new kitchen to help serve the community every day of the week.
“The building, this was something that we had in the back of our heads ever since we began the organization,” says Khaira. “It was a pipe dream back then.”
Recently it became more feasible, and they started looking for a location.
“We have a few volunteers that have a background in real estate,” he says. “We looked at quite a few buildings in the DTES, found one in our range, in a good location.
“It worked out perfect.”
GNFK isn’t opening its doors quite yet though; while they’ve taken possession of the building it’s not up to snuff. Khaira says renovations are being planned now, with hopes to open up in the summer of 2022. However, there are still plenty of volunteer hours to put in. While they’ve had someone offer to donate some kitchen equipment they have to look it over to see if it’ll work in the space, and the building essentially needs to be gutted.
“We’re still collecting for fundraising, and we’re always looking for volunteers who want to be a part of it,” Khaira says. “We’re not asking for specifically Sikh people.”
He notes that while the background of the organization is based on Sikhism, it’s not a religious organization, but a standalone charity. background, this is open to all communities.”
Going forward there’ll be more transformations for the organization as well. That includes looking at what more they can offer the community now that they have a building (including considering food storage, housing and community space). Staying a volunteer-based organization is also important to them, but new paid positions will be added to make sure things run properly.
Those interested in volunteering or donating can reach GNFK through their website.