This California Drive-Through Rises Above Fast Food

Cars are stopping by for healthy groceries and produce.

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A spread of fresh organic vegetables.

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When drivers pull up at the front of what may be Southern California’s longest drive-through line, things look different. Where are the windows, cashiers and fast food, wonders CBS News. It turns out that this is no regular to-go food queue. Visitors are instead greeted by smiling volunteers, handing them packages of fresh produce and a fortnight’s worth of groceries, for free.

But the setting is significant. This drive-through line is located in Santa Ana, California, a “food desert” which is a geographic area in which residents struggle to regularly access nutritious food. For these locals, the Seva Collective food pantry is a hub for  welcome help and positivity. And it delivers. The collective distributes 60,000 pounds (27,215 kilograms) of food to over 1,200 families each month. According to Sunny Skyz, this collective had provided over four million meals to people in need by May 2024.

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A food pantry that emerged during the pandemic
The Seva Collective food pantry isn’t some long-established community project, but one set up four years ago, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was created by a trio of compassionate friends:  Bandana and Saanand Singh, and Ravin Kohli. 

In the mayhem of heightened need during those challenging times,  a handful of volunteers handed out food and toys collected from multiple markets. These were paid for by the organizers out of their own pockets, as they had a dream to help local people overcome food insecurity.

While volunteers today hail from many different backgrounds, the pantry’s name, Seva, has its roots in the concept of selfless service in the Sikh religion, as it is founded by a group of caring Sikhs. Its slogan,  Sarbat da Bhalla, comes from a prayer calling for all of humanity to prosper, and one that inspires Sikhs to help others.  Sunny Skyz explains that this motto translates as “Doing good for all.”                     

What’s happening in 2024?
While the Seva Collective continues to work to feed locals in need with dignity, it also seeks to bring them fresh produce and unprocessed food to nourish them. This comes from the recognition of the relationship between good diet and health. As well as tackling hunger, therefore, it also aims to help cut systemic health challenges, encouraging healthier longer term health outcomes. 

“We know that if they're not consuming fresh food, they're going to be consuming junk and then that's a systemic problem that leads to health issues down the line,” Bandana Singh tells CBS News. “So little steps now can hopefully help future generations and everyone's health as they continue to age.”

Today, a hugely expanded Seva collective partners with food banks, companies and farms, hosts special toy and clothing campaigns, and relies on a bigger family of volunteers, many of them young people.

In recognition of this youth-led support, the Collective’s new youth leadership program aims to equip service-oriented next-gen volunteers with the leadership tools and skills to run an organization, teaching them everything from learning about food procurement to managing finances.

Responding to a pressing local need
The clear need from beneficiaries shows the Seva Collective team that they need to keep going to relieve food insecurity in the local population. 

Bandana Singh has detailed the very visible “food cliff” in the Californian region the organization serves to Voice of OC (Orange County), seeing increased pressure on family budgets, which reduces the amount left over for food, and causing  families to turn to food banks more frequently. This figure hovered around 500-600 families and counting at the end of 2023, with this number skyrocketing during holiday periods. These included the “Free Food & Thanksgiving Turkey Drive-Thru Distribution” in November, promoted on the homepage of the Mayor of Santa Ana, Valerie Amezcua.

As Bandana Singh explains to CBS News, “We have cars line up as early as three or four in the morning — we don't start the drive till 9:30 a.m. So to us as the volunteer team, it tells us that the need is there and we want to do whatever we can.”

Long-time recipient, Jody Watts, explains that in just a relatively short period, the initiative has become one the local community can rely on to help feed their families. She also sees it as providing relief from the anxiety of food insecurity in locals such as herself: “It takes away a sense of dread and anxiety of not having enough food to supply for the family,” she shares.

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