Seva Collective: Transforming Lives with Free Food Drive-Thru

Seva Collective

In Santa Ana, California, Seva Collective food pantry, an unusual drive-thru line stretches for blocks. Unlike typical drive-thrus, this one doesn’t offer fast food or cashiers. Instead, drivers are greeted by dedicated volunteers. These volunteers load fresh produce and groceries into car trunks, all free of charge. This food pantry in Santa Ana is a lifeline for many in a food desert.

The Seva Collective began during the COVID-19 pandemic. Initially, it was a small operation with just a handful of volunteers. Founders Bandana Singh, Ravin Kohli, and Saanand Singh purchased food and toys themselves to help the community. Bandana Singh recalls, “We were driving to the LA downtown food market, we were driving to Central California to pick up citrus.” They were committed to fighting food insecurity.

The Seva Collective has now provided over four million meals. It has grown significantly, involving new volunteers and partnering with food banks, companies, and farms. Singh highlights the goal: “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.” Cars start lining up as early as 3 a.m. for the drive that begins at 9:30 a.m. This demand shows the community’s need for the service.

A Community Lifeline

Long-time recipient Jody Watts shares how the pantry alleviates anxiety about food. “It takes away a sense of dread and anxiety of not having enough food,” Watts said. Each month brings new faces to the pantry, like Laura Castro, who learned 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.”

Seva Collective prioritizes fresh produce and unprocessed foods. This focus encourages healthy habits and addresses systemic health problems in the community. Food deserts often have an abundance of fast food and corner stores selling unhealthy options. Singh explains, “We know that if they’re not consuming fresh food, they’re going to be consuming junk.”

The founders’ Sikh faith inspired Seva Collective. The name “Seva” comes from the Sikh concept of selfless service. Their slogan, “Sarbat da Bhalla,” is a prayer for the prosperity of all humanity. Each month, Seva Collective distributes 60,000 pounds of food to over 1,200 families. During the recent drive, they also gave out toys, books, and clothes in partnership with brands like Young LA. These special gifts were in celebration of Vaisakhi, a significant Sikh holiday.

Seva Collective inspires recipients to pay it forward. Watts, who has volunteered with the organization, uses the extra food to help others. “It’s given me a sense of being able to give back,” Watts said. Another recipient, Charlene, shares this sentiment: “If there’s something we don’t use, we give it to somebody else as well.”

Dedicated Volunteers

Volunteers are the backbone of Seva Collective. Over 500 unique volunteers have supported the pantry, showing up before sunrise to prepare. William Tarango, a teacher and long-time volunteer, said, “It’s a labor of love. Seeing the number of cars and people in line shows it’s making a positive impact.” For many, volunteering is a fulfilling experience. Shilpa Chitoori describes it as a form of meditation, finding joy in serving others on Saturday mornings.

Volunteering has a lasting impact on young participants. Marsha Mehta brings her kids to help, teaching them valuable lessons about community service and empathy. “The first time we came, my older son saw how grateful everyone was,” Mehta said. 

This experience has significantly influenced her children’s worldview, instilling a sense of responsibility and compassion. Mehta notes that her children are more aware of the challenges others face and are eager to contribute positively to society. They have become more appreciative of what they have and understand the importance of giving back. These early experiences in volunteering are shaping them into conscientious and caring individuals, ready to make a difference in the world.

The Seva Collective is also shaping future leaders through its structured leadership program. This initiative includes standout students like Parker Kuo, Amrit Grewal, Baani Singh, and Deena Singh, who have each dedicated hundreds of service hours to the organization. These young leaders are not only providing essential help to their community but are also gaining invaluable skills and experiences that will benefit them in the future. Ravin Kohli, co-founder and director, praises their dedication and commitment: “We have been awestruck by their dedication to service.” The program aims to equip these young volunteers with leadership skills, a deep sense of social responsibility, and the ability to inspire others. By engaging in this program, they are learning to manage projects, coordinate with volunteers, and understand the logistics of large-scale community service operations.

The success of Seva Collective lies in the unwavering dedication of its volunteers. Bandana Singh, one of the founders, feels immense gratitude and humility for the opportunity to serve alongside such committed individuals. “I feel lucky to work with those kinds of people all year long,” she said. The volunteers’ relentless efforts, often starting before sunrise and involving meticulous preparation, ensure the smooth operation of each drive.

Moreover, Their selfless service not only provides essential support to families in need but also fosters a strong sense of community and solidarity. The organization’s impact is profound, as it not only addresses immediate food insecurity but also brings hope and dignity to those it serves. Through the collective efforts of its volunteers, Seva Collective has become a beacon of support and compassion, making a tangible difference in the lives of thousands.