On a crisp spring morning in a neighbourhood near Toronto Pearson International Airport, Sophia Niro (name has been changed) awaits a delivery of free groceries. The septuagenarian is expecting a couple of crates—a frozen turkey for Easter, milk, eggs, fresh fruits and vegetables, dried pasta, tomato sauces, soups and beans, as well as flour for making her own bread.
Dressed elegantly in slacks and a beaded sweater, Niro has one weak leg and uses a cane to walk. She’s clutching it as she stands at the back door of her brick low-rise to let in Vishal Khanna; she doesn’t want him or the two volunteers accompanying him to have to lug 40 kilograms of food from the parking lot around to the main entrance at the front of the apartment building.
Khanna, the co-founder of the Sai Dham Food Bank, tried to convince Niro to wait upstairs in her home, but he knows not to argue. A former palliative care nurse, she is proud—she doesn’t even rely on her own children. Her first husband died after the family immigrated to Canada from Italy in the 1980s, and she took care of her second husband for years while he was extremely ill. She went deep into debt trying to keep him alive.
For the past five years, Niro has gotten by with the help of Sai Dham, which operates out of a Hindu temple located in a modest bungalow nearby. Khanna, 51, and Subhra Mukherjee, 50, run a team of a few dozen volunteers who make deliveries to approximately 265 seniors and people living with disabilities in the Greater Toronto Area who couldn’t otherwise access food banks.
Sai Dham was founded in 2012, after Khanna and Mukherjee read an article about the alarming rate of poverty in Peel Region, the area of southern Ontario where they each settled after emigrating from India. (According to a United Way report, 52 per cent of neighbourhoods in Peel are low-income.) “For us, food is God, and hunger is a number-one priority,” says Mukherjee. “We never thought about a food bank; we just wanted to provide a service to humanity.”
In the beginning, they bought supplies with their own money and found people in need through word of mouth. But over the past seven years, thanks to growing food donations and volunteer ranks, they have become a vital support in the area. They’ve delivered over 450,000 kilograms of food—due in part to a lush vegetable garden on the temple’s property—and their services have expanded to include a breakfast program for 300 students a day, as well as supplying local food banks during times of crisis.
Sai Dham’s work is attracting attention and awards, but it’s an uphill battle. The food bank operates out of basements and minivans, and it still needs trucks, proper storage, an office and administrative support. And though it receives modest donations from local supermarkets, bigger sponsorships have yet to materialize.
Back in her apartment filled with plants, books, paintings and Catholic iconography, Niro tells Khanna that she will be done paying off one of her loans by the winter. She jokes that she will no longer need to be a client of the food bank. “I will find a way to repay you,” she promises, her hands clasped together. Khanna points to a picture of Jesus on Niro’s wall. “Look at his eyes. They are so merciful,” he says. “That light is what we need to carry.” He continues: “Our different faiths are just a belief and a classroom. We all live in the same building.”
Niro nods in agreement. “We are all human beings,” she says.
Next, read the inspiring story of the Edmonton courier service employing those with disabilities.