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Drive-thru food pantry in Southern California food desert provides consistent source of groceries for thousands: "It's a labor of love"

Drive-thru food pantry feeds thousands in California food desert
Drive-thru food pantry feeds thousands in California food desert 03:53

It may just be Southern California's longest drive-thru line.

But when these drivers pull up to the front, there's no window, fast food or even cashiers.

Instead, each car is met with a troop of volunteers, efficiently placing bundles of fresh produce and two weeks' worth of groceries in the trunk — all for free.

Volunteers place grocery items in the car trunks of recipients
Volunteers place grocery items in the car trunks of recipients Simrin Singh/CBS News

This is the Seva Collective food pantry in Santa Ana, California, a food desert — a geographic area where residents struggle to consistently access nutritious food. 

Born in a crucial time of need at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, this organization began as a scrappy operation — a handful of volunteers, food and toys purchased by the organizers themselves, and a dream to help a community dealing with food insecurity.

"When we first started, we were driving to LA downtown food market, we were driving to Central California to pick up citrus — we were kind of all over the place," said Bandana Singh, who co-founded Seva Collective alongside Ravin Kohli and Saanand Singh.

Four million meals later, the Seva Collective has continued to grow, bringing on new volunteers, partnering with food banks, companies and farms, and hosting special toy and clothing drives.

"Our goal is to get fresh food, as well as shelf-stable food to every family's car or cart who comes through the drive," Singh said. "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."

The initiative has become a community staple that nearby residents rely upon month after month in order to feed their families, long-time recipient Jody Watts said.

"It takes away a sense of dread and it takes away a sense of anxiety of not having enough food to supply for the family," Watts said.

Jody Watts, a longtime recipient of the pantry, waits in line
Jody Watts, a longtime recipient of the pantry, waits in line hours before the drive begins. Simrin Singh/CBS News

Although many, like Watts, have been coming to the pantry for years, each month brings in new faces, like Laura Castro who heard about Seva Collective through her kids' school.

"Since I have five kids, it's helping me," Castro said. "I hope my kids [leave here] with a big smile on their face."

While its primary goal is to feed people in need, Seva Collective places an emphasis on delivering fresh produce and unprocessed foods to those in line to encourage healthy habits and slow systemic health problems in this food desert community, Singh said.

This week's kit included watermelon, romaine, English muffins and more
This week's kit included watermelon, romaine, English muffins and more Simrin Singh/CBS News

Food deserts are most common in Black and Brown communities and low-income areas, and often have an overabundance of fast food chains and corner stores that sell processed foods high in fat, sugar and salt, according to the Food Empowerment Project.

"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," Singh said. "So little steps now can hopefully help future generations and everyone's health as they continue to age."

While volunteers and recipients are from many different backgrounds, the founders' Sikh faith inspired the creation of the organization.

The name "Seva," comes from the concept of selfless service in the Sikh faith. And their slogan, "Sarbat da Bhalla," is a prayer for all of humanity to prosper, and inspires Sikhs to do good for all.

And that's just what this group is doing.

Each month, the Seva Collective distributes 60,000 pounds of food to more than 1,200 families. 

In its most recent drive, the organization also distributed toys, books and clothes, partnering with brands like Young LA.

The special gift bags were given in celebration of Vaisakhi, one of the most religiously significant days of the year for Sikhs. It marks the birth of the Khalsa Panth and the recognition of Sikhs as a formal faith and community.

"We are celebrating Vaisakhi, which is when we became the collective that we are, and so we want to share that with community. We want everyone to be able to celebrate with us," Singh said. 

In addition to providing food, toys and other essentials, the organization has passed on the spirit of paying it forward. Watts, who has even volunteered with Seva Collective, said she tries to use what she gets from the drive to feed others in her community.

"It's given me a sense of being able to give back," Watts said. "I would never have had the means to help anybody else out. I'm recently disabled and having the extra food — and I love to cook — has made it available for me to go in my neighborhood to the homeless and feed them."

"If there's something we don't use, we give it to somebody else as well," another recipient, Charlene, said. "We try to help our neighbors out."

What is perhaps most remarkable about the whole operation are the volunteers who show up before sunrise, and days in advance, to make this drive happen — for nothing in return. Over 500 unique volunteers have shown up to help over the years — rain or shine.

"It's a labor of love, but I know when you see the cars and the number of cars and the number of people in line…it's making an impact, a positive impact on the community," said William Tarango, a teacher who has volunteered with Seva Collective for three and a half years. "It's nice to be around people that just want to serve, that just want to help."

For some volunteers, like Shilpa Chitoori, coming bright and early to prepare for the drive and interacting with others working there is energizing.

"It's a form of meditation for me because being amongst this whole group of amazing people and working here, you know, what better way to spend a Saturday morning than this," Chitoori said.

Marsha Mehta, who has been bringing her kids to volunteer at the drives since the pandemic, says though the pantry helps those in line, it has also made a lasting impact on how her children view the world.

"The first time we came, my older son was here during COVID, and he saw how grateful everybody was that was coming through the food lines, and that really made an impression on him," Mehta said. "I think this is such an important thing to do."

Seva Collective founder Bandana Singh assigns tasks to volunteers
Seva Collective founder Bandana Singh assigns tasks to volunteers as they arrive to the drive. Simrin Singh/CBS News

Like Mehta's son, almost half of Seva Collective's volunteers are young people. Because of this, in the summer, the organization is launching the Youth Leadership Program, which is intended to help train young volunteers in how to run an organization — from learning the food procurement process to managing finances.

"We hope this gives these young service-oriented kids tools and leadership skills to help continue their impact as they go to college and beyond," explained Shivani Maheshwari, who is part of the organization's leadership team.

Four standout students — Parker Kuo, Amrit Grewal, Baani Singh and Deena Singh — will be part of the inaugural cohort of this leadership program. Each of them has dedicated hundreds of hours of service to feeding the Santa Ana and nearby communities.

"Quite frankly, we have been awestruck by their dedication to service, and what to give them the opportunity to continue serving, and growing the impact to families in need," said Ravin Kohli, co-founder and director of Seva Collective.

Singh says being part of Seva Collective has given her the opportunity to feel gratitude and humility, adding that none of it would be possible without the army volunteers who choose to spend their Saturday mornings filling each trunk with food.

"I feel lucky to work with those kinds of people all year long and I feel blessed that we can help families who come out," Singh said. "There's so many emotions."

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