The free meals that have been coming out of a small Edmonton eatery the past ten months are not only providing nourishment for those in need, they’ve also been an emotional boost for the men and women behind the pandemic-inspired gesture.
"Giving is a mental meal," said Varinder Bhullar, president of the non-profit Green Scholars of Alberta, which partnered with Dil-E-Punjab Sweets and Restaurant shortly after COVID-19 hit Alberta.
Bhullar said Green Scholars shifted its funding focus last year when summer camps were cancelled due to the pandemic. Bhullar ended up connecting with Imran Javaid, owner of Dil-E-Punjab, and together, they began a free meal program that has fed thousands and warmed countless hearts.
The program – supported by community donations and a provincial government grant - started with a few dozen meals per day. Thanks to media reports and social media, interest grew and the request for meals kept growing.
On average, more than 100 meals are prepared and ready for pickup at the small eatery in Mill Woods to anyone who asks - every day of the week.
Bhullar said restaurant staff and community volunteers have helped ensure the program’s success.
"This is a perfect example of the community working together," said Bhullar.
Javaid, who has owned the eatery for ten years, provided free meals for hard-hit residents during the Fort McMurray fire in 2016 and is thrilled to be a part of an even larger campaign this time.
"We are helping others. It feels good for us to do this," he said.
Javaid, who breaks even on the free meal program, said his team still has time to provide 30 to 40 meals each day for paying customers at Dil-E-Punjab.
"And the meals are different every day. We change it up,” he said, adding the menu routinely consists of Indian and Pakistani vegetarian dishes.
While the smiles from those accepting meals are uplifting, Bhullar said some recipients have given back when their fortunes changed.
“A woman came to the restaurant and gave me an envelope," he said. "She said she had been coming for food every day for four weeks, and she wanted to pay it back."
“Everyone who comes here needs it. They are good human beings."
Following a motto of 'giving is a responsibility', Bhullar started Green Scholars in memory of his mother, Rajinder. She died of cancer, likely due to improper use of pesticides and poor environmental conditions in her native home of India, he said. Because of that, the organization's primary goal is to raise environmental awareness and encourage responsible citizenship.
Bhullar has also launched a separate meal program involving community members to feed the homeless in downtown Edmonton, which runs Thursdays to Sundays.
Though he works full-time for a pharmaceutical company, Bhullar said he enjoys time spent on the free meal program because it's so rewarding. "We should all be sharing," he said. "And we will keep this going as long as there is a need."
To order a meal, text Bhullar at 780-966-3121 or Javaid at 780-695-8229 before 4 p.m. daily.
Pickup is between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m. at Dil-E-Punjab Sweets and Restaurant, 1531 Millwoods Rd. East, Edmonton.
Donations toward meal costs and Green Scholars can be made via etransfer to email@example.com.