In 2017, when Sikh volunteers began distributing free meals to the homeless from a van in Tooradin and Frankston, they were curious: would people like their vegetarian Punjabi curries?

“In the start, we were thinking ‘People will like it or not like it?’,” recalls Manpreet Singh, the vice-president of Sikh Volunteers Australia.“It was not just simple curries, it was very special curries we were making according to their taste. Because most of the people don’t like hot food we were trying to make it milder.”

They needn’t have worried. The food vans, plastered with Love all & Share all stickers, have become famous in Melbourne south-east.

Twice a week the volunteers (known as sevadars) distribute dishes such as creamy mutter paneers (a curry made with peas and fresh cheese), vegetable kormas, saag (a leaf vegetable dish) and alu pakora (fried potato slices) from Tooradin caravan park and Young Street car park in Frankston.

They have added pasta and soups to their repertoire, although when Sikh Volunteers Australia served these in Bairnsdale during the bushfires, thinking they might be better suited to country tastes, the locals begged for curries.

An essential tenet of Sikhism – the fifth largest and fastest growing religion in Australia – is providing for people in need.

“Everywhere in the world if you go to a Sikh Gurdwara Sahib [temple] you will get free food – this is called langar in the Sikh faith,” Mr Singh says.

This philosophy of selfless service – or seva – has seen Sikh Volunteers Australia, which operates out of a large kitchen at the Sikh Community Gurmat Centre in Devon Meadows, mobilise to deliver food to needy groups impacted by the global pandemic.

When the first lockdown shuttered the food vans in March (they have since resumed services), the organisation began delivering free meals every night in the municipalities of Casey, Frankston and Dandenong.

International students, the elderly, single mums, homeless people, those self-isolating and anyone else from these areas facing hardship during COVID-19 are invited to text their orders in by 12pm each day. (Details are on the Sikh Volunteers Australia Facebook page.)

“At the moment, we are not only giving meals, we are giving some groceries as well,” Mr Singh says.

Mr Singh, who came to Australia as a student in 2005, is very concerned about international students, many of whom have lost their casual jobs as a result of the pandemic. “I can feel the pain of students, they can’t ask their parents to send the money. If they are working fine, if they are not working it is very hard for them.”

Mr Singh is now a driver for people with disabilities, although he has been stood down during lockdown. He can’t count the number of hours he spends volunteering: “I am available all the time.”

Social distancing rules mean an army of 170 masked volunteers need to work staggered shifts in the Devon Meadows kitchen. It’s now a well-oiled machine. Vegetable chopping begins at 8am, meal preparation is in full swing between 12 and 3pm, the packing team comes in at 4pm and the food is delivered between 5pm and 7pm.

At the peak of the last lockdown Sikh Volunteers Australia were delivering 900 meals every day. The numbers dropped when stage three restrictions ended but are now rising again.

When some public housing towers went into hard lockdown, Sikh Volunteers Australia set up a table for a week in Flemington. Department of Health and Human Services officials distributed their meals throughout the towers.

Sikh Volunteers Australia regularly posts on its Facebook page, which has more than 30,000 followers, calling for urgent donations of ingredients such as chickpeas, vegetables, ginger garlic paste, lentils and soya chunks.

Mr Singh says the response from the broader Australian community, as well as the Sikh community, has been overwhelming. “We did not expect it but everyone is helping us, we are so grateful to them.”

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