Subhra Mukherjee founded Sai Dham Food Bank in 2012 with Vishal Khanna, whom she calls her spiritual brother. The project has delivered more than four million pounds of donated groceries, primarily to seniors and people with disabilities. She spoke with Claire Sibonney.
Claire Sibonney: What inspired your food-bank delivery idea?
Subhra Mukherjee: The spark was in 2012, when Vishal and I read a newspaper article about the shocking number of seniors under the poverty line [in Peel Region, the area of southern Ontario where we each settled after immigrating from India]. So we started asking people if they knew any seniors who needed help, and we got references from worshippers who came to Sai Dham temple in Mississauga, Ont. We started buying food out of our own pocket. When we started delivering to people’s homes, we could actually see the conditions they were living in. We saw seniors with nothing. Empty fridges. Cockroaches running around. No one to take care of them.
CS: What moved you to act on the hunger you witnessed and to create something bigger?
SM: For me, the most shocking thing was that these elderly people were forgotten by everybody. Nobody thought that while there were hundreds or thousands of amazing food banks around, seniors can’t go to the food bank. There is no one to take them there or take them around to select their food, or to take them home. So what do they eat?
When I’m serving elderly people in my community, I feel that I am serving my parents, I am serving God.
CS: What are some of the barriers to food security that you want to see changed?
SM: I personally want to see everybody involved in this issue working on the ground level. I want to see all the food agencies coming together and working as one because that way we can serve everyone. I would like to see sharing of information between agencies so that nobody can take advantage of the system and we can serve more people. I want to see a focus on nutritious food for everyone, so you don’t have to be diabetic [or have other health concerns] to get healthy food. And I want to see more heart-to-heart relationships with these beautiful people. These seniors feel like they are good for nothing. They feel they are worthless. I felt that myself when I was back from the hospital after a severe burn accident that left me bed-ridden and totally dependent. When I see them, I think about my own parents and say, “No! Don’t feel worthless. You are so important to us. It is because of you that we are here, and today, it is our turn to take care of you.”
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CS: What connects you to the people you serve?
SM: My parents still live in Kolkata, and being their only daughter, I can’t do anything for them. So when I’m serving elderly people in my community, I feel that I am serving my parents, I am serving God.
CS: How did your early life prepare you for this kind of volunteer work?
SM: I grew up in a lower-middle class family in Kolkata, a religious family. But from childhood, I didn’t see myself as a ritualistic person. I was more spiritual and I loved to meditate — being by myself, closing my eyes and sitting for hours. Then I was introduced to a charitable organization next door to where I lived, and I learned about service to others and the importance of praying. It felt like a calling. When I was in Grade 8 or 9, my friends would be out playing and I would be with elderly people, singing for others in the community. That is where I felt I belonged.
A shorter version of this interview first appeared in Broadview‘s November 2020 issue with the title “Subhra Mukherjee.”
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