- Nonprofits, community and religious groups, and lawmakers come together to reflect, be grateful and help the less unfortunate.
What is Thanksgiving without a heaping plate of food? Just the mention of the holiday conjures up images of a perfectly set table, a beautiful centerpiece and a sumptuous spread – turkey, ham, the fixings, and a variety of pies and ice creams. While Thanksgiving is a day of feasting and getting together with family and friends, it is also a time to reflect, express gratitude and help the less unfortunate.
There is no doubt that the holidays bring an infectious spirit of giving, and whether it’s Diwali, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, or Christmas, many Indian Americans use these holidays to give back to the community, whether it’s volunteering in soup kitchens or donating food to the homeless.
In fact, from the beginning of the month, coinciding with Diwali, several Indian American organizations like the HungerMitao, a nonprofit founded by the Texas-based Raj Asava and his wife, Aradhana (Anna) Asava, have been conducting food drives to help put food on the table in thousands of American homes. Though food insecurity has declined from where it was at the height of the pandemic, many are still turning to food banks and pantries for help getting holiday meals.
According to Feeding America, “food-insecure people are being hit particularly hard by this crisis.” The number of people relying on food banks and other charities was intensified by the pandemic, and food banks are now accustomed to the increased number of people served, it notes, adding that food banks across the country are serving 55 percent more people than before the pandemic.
Asava concurs with this data. “Due to the far-reaching impact of the pandemic, the number of people needing food assistance in every zip code across the United States has gone up significantly,” he told American Kahani. “Add to that, the crisis brought on by the virus variants and the expiration of many of the government benefits, millions of families across the country continue to struggle for the basic necessity of food for them and their families.”
For the past two weeks, coinciding with Diwali, HungerMitao, along with 80 other organizations, has been collecting food from the Indian American community in North Texas for its “Seva Diwali” initiative. This past weekend, they distributed 50,000 meals to the North Texas Food Bank distribution center and to the needy in the Irving area at the Ekta Mandir facilities. “It’s our gesture for Diwali and Thanksgiving,” notes Asava, who established HungerMitao in September 2017. “It is now really a movement that’s spreading quite rapidly throughout the country,” he says.
Till now, HungerMitao has delivered 40 million meals in collaboration with food banks. “Typically the food that we donate to the food banks is vegetarian and unprocessed,” Asava notes. These food banks then provide it to food pantries “in every zip code,” who then pack and send the required amount to food banks. “This is one way of giving them a helping hand.” Asava notes that “the spirit of giving where you live” engages the community in three ways – donate funds, volunteer and use Indian festivals to do a food drive — “annadan.”
This year, for Diwali, the Indian American community through the HungerMitao movement sponsored the first-ever HungerMitao Truck. “This 24-foot truck will traverse the 10,000 square miles of North Texas Food Bank’s service area for the next two years, delivering thousands of nutritious meals to our hungry neighbors,” Asava says. “In an area with 800,000 people who are food insecure, this initiative is crucial, and the food bank is grateful.”
Another organization that’s helping bring hope and happiness to the underprivileged is the California-based Joy of Sharing Foundation. This Thanksgiving, volunteers are providing free hot meals to the underserved at two locations in Southern California. “The meals are vegan and completely nonviolent,” Varun Gandhi, one of the main organizers of the meal drive, told American Kahani.
These 7,500 meals will serve “the homeless, abused and neglected in over 30 cities and five counties in Southern California,” he adds. Food will be cooked at two locations. In South Los Angeles, 4,500 meals will be cooked. Each person will receive a 16 oz container of pasta with vegetables and red sauce, bread roll, a bottle of water and a chocolate chip cookie for dessert. The other kitchen, in Riverside, is at a gurdwara, where 3,500 meals will be cooked. That meal consists of chole, rice, chocolate chip cookies and water.
The main idea behind the menu is Ahimsa, to ensure that no animal is harmed during the preparation of the meal served.” Gandhi says, adding that a similar food drive was held on Oct. 2, Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday, celebrated as Ahimsa Day. “To continue this legacy of non-violence,” the Joy of Sharing Foundation “prepared 5000 hot meals to serve the homeless, underserved, disabled in Los Angeles.”
Gandhi is currently raising funds for the Thanksgiving meal drive through a GoFundMe page. “Your $1.50 donation will go extra-long and feed 3 people as it will be matched by two donors, Sarva Mangal Family Trust and Wadher Family Foundation,” he notes on the GoFundMe Page.
Apart from the Thanksgiving drive, the Joy of Sharing Foundation has been providing hot meals and free groceries to the underserved and needy every Sunday at the Sanatan Dharma Temple in Norwalk, California. Held in conjunction with the Gujarati Society of Southern California (GSSC), this drive has served more than 24,000 people residing in 40 cities surrounding the center.
In Jersey City, New Jersey, the Nanak Naam Jahaj Gurudwara has been organizing a special Thanksgiving community meal, or langar, through its “Let’s Share A Meal,” a volunteer-run program that feeds the hungry. This year, on Nov. 12-13, it serves thousands of vegetarian meals to the homeless. The team has been taking free food to homeless shelters, old age homes and soup kitchens since 2012.
At the same time, several organizations have been distributing free turkeys to millions across the country. This year, CFBNJ, which has partnered with several Indian American organizations, has distributed 70,000 turkeys and roasters at its 21st Annual Turkey Drive on Nov. 20 and 21 – double of what it provided last year. “This effort comes in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, especially for families whose source of income has been adversely affected,” CFBNJ notes.
Indian American lawmakers like New York Assemblywoman Jenifer Rajkumar and New York State Senators Jeremy Cooney and Kevin Thomas have collaborated with several groups in their respective constituencies to conduct a Thanksgiving distribution – from turkey to canned food to warm clothing and stuffed animals for the children.
“Hosted a drive-thru Turkey Give-A-Way with Antioch Baptist Church,” Sen. Cooney wrote in a Facebook post on Nov. 21. “Cars around the block on Joseph Ave. Despite such need in Rochester, sharing food and prayer brought everyone great joy,” he wrote. “This is what makes it all worthwhile — being part of our beloved community and giving back.”