The number of COVID-19 cases continue to rise with May 7, 2021 clocking over 4.14 lakh cases pan India with over 3,500 deaths. Amidst this, there are people who have gone a step forward and are doing what they can to help others. SHALINI SAKSENA chats up COVID warriors who are delivering food to people infected with the virus or can’t afford to feed their families
The rising numbers of COVID-19 in the country say it all — that there is chaos, carnage and cries for help all around. Coronavirus is killing humans but humanity is not dead. People from all walks of life have stepped out from the safety and comforts of their homes to help those in need. Besides helping people get lifesaving medicines, these COVID warriors are also cooking food and sending it to families who are unable to cook during these testing times.
One such person is Sarika Malhotra Yadav in Anand Lok in the Capital. For Yadav, the journey started last year, as soon as the lockdown began. “Last year, due to the pandemic, when the nation-wide lockdown was announced, I started distributing free food to people who were in need, especially the labour class who found itself jobless, no money and hence no means to feed their family. Come April 2021, the situation is even worse. It is not just the poor who are in need. This is when I requested my full-time maid if she would help me to cook food and send it to those in need. Usually, she cooks for four people but she would end up cooking for 30-odd people everyday which is not easy given that it is breakfast, lunch and dinner. She readily agreed,” Yadav says.
Since then, Yadav has been supplying food 30 meals daily. While it may not sound as if it is a big number but it does involve a lot of time. “I prepare a three-day menu in advance since I don’t want people to feel as if they are eating the same daal or vegetable. Then there are the aged who want to eat light food; the young want their rajma. So, I add rajma to the daal. Young people like kadhi. The elderly don’t want to eat it. Instead, I made a quick paneer bhurji with panchrangi daal with jeera tadka. This is easy to cook and it is nutritious. My work starts at 8 am with breakfast which is delivered by 10:30, lunch by 1:30 pm and dinner by 8:30 pm. I also send kada. I tell them what I put and if they want, they can drink it,” Yadav tells you.
In this endeavour, Yadav is being helped by her son, studying in IIT who help her to pack. Her daughter, in Class XI, helps to organise everything else that is needed. Yadav who has an IT company, has put her work on hold to provide this service to those who need it. “I am not a professional chef. I have an IT company. Our aim is to help out people in their time of need in our area. I try to restrict myself to two-three km to supply food. But then I got a request from a family in Jor Bagh that their son is wheat intolerant and could provide meals that were gluten-free for him. I agreed. I have tied up with a delivery app. I charge a nominal amount from those who can afford to pay and provide free food to those who can’t. These include security guards,” Yadav says who is supplying vegetarian food only.
She tells you that sometimes the pressure gets to her and her maid, Sushita, due to the demands that some people make. “I tell her that it is a matter of time. There are days when people want to eat sprout cheela or even besan cheela. I tell my kids as well to eat whatever has been cooked for the day instead of what they want to eat,” Yadav says.
It is not just food that she provides. Once she is done with cooking and sending off meals, the rest of her time is spent in making arrangements of medicines and oxygen for her staff, family and friends. Her son spends time verifying the information that comes on social media. “He and his friends verify information that comes over various social media platforms, make an Excel sheet and share it with parents and family to circulate so maximum correct information reaches people,” Yadav says.
Elsewhere in RK Puram, Swapan Jain, (39) is out delivering food to those in need. He lost his friend to COVID-19 a couple of days back but for Jain, his commitment made to the people is more important. “I have been lucky that till now nobody in my family has suffered the way I see people suffering today. I lost my friend to the virus last week. Sadly, I couldn’t be part of his last journey nor can I go to his house to pay my condolences in person. But such is life,” Jain says.
He saw a flier on his WhatsApp group 10-15 days back requesting people to come forward and provide home-cooked food to those in need. “I immediately contacted the number and offered my services. I have two people who help me in my endeavour. It takes around three hours to prepare the meals — from sorting to cutting to final cooking. We prepare the meals and even deliver it ourselves to make sure people don’t have to pay extra for delivery. We cater to RK Puram, Moti Bagh, Shanti Niketan and Munirka and provide 50-60 meals daily — lunch and dinner,” Jain says.
He tells you that it would be much easier if he could just do simple daal, chawal, roti and sabzi. “Unfortunately, this is not the case people do come up with their demands and we try to take care of what they want. Sometimes, there are limitations so it is not always possible to give what they want. We have no option but to apologise. The only complaints that we got in the beginning was related to delivery,” Jain says.
Bonku Roy, who is part of the House of Kitchens (HoK) that started last year during the lockdown, and stays in Mayur Vihar Phase I has been providing food to families in East Delhi. “I am part of the House of Kitchens group of home chefs. The group was looking for people who could provide food in East Delhi, I readily agreed to do the same. From day one calls started coming in and the process began. People requesting for lunch and dinner. To begin with I was providing 60 meals daily. But then it got too much. I was all alone and it got to me. Now, I only do lunch. I have tied up with a couple of delivery apps. Since I have this tie-up, it makes it easy to deliver within seven-eight km,” Roy says.
He ensures that the meals are cooked with minimum oil and it is vegetarian so that the patient can easily digest it. “I set a menu and stick to it. It is thali concept and has four things — daal, chawal, roti and sabzi. Daal and sabzi are different each day. There are people who need an early meal or our Diabetic and can’t eat rice. Many of the people I cater to our Jains, they don’t want garlic or onions. I try to accommodate everyone's needs. I make a standard meal that works for everyone. As it is, it takes me three-four hours from cutting and cleaning to cooking,” Roy tells you.
He also provides free meals to a few elderlies who can’t afford to pay; for others, who can afford to pay the charges are Rs 110 per meal. There is an interesting story about how he learnt to cook. “When I went abroad, I didn’t even know how to make tea. It was a struggle for me. I learnt how to cook. I then became part of the home chef for HoK. While this is on hold for now, I will get back to it as soon as possible,” Roy says.
‘It all started with people becoming home chefs’
The nation-wide lockdown due to the present pandemic last year led to many people experimenting with food and trying out new dishes. So much so that they excelled at it and more and more people got inspired with what these people were doing and more home chefs grew. From baking breads to Dalgona coffee to made from scratch thin crust pizzas, the list was endless. Groups came up where friends and family shared what they had made that day. One such group — House of Kitchens — came up in Panchsheel Enclave in the Capital with Anupriya Singh as its founder.
“When the lockdown happened last year, almost everyone was experimenting with new dishes at home. People were scared to order out. We have a group of 200 in my colony where the women shared what they had made that day. It is a group to share information and nothing else is allowed to be shared here. But due to the COVID-19, there was a relaxation. People started posting photos of what they had cooked. Then a competition was announced. After three weeks of lockdown and things didn’t open, people started selling the food. Kids are used to ordering out so they started ordering food from them. Parents allowed it since it was home-cooked and safe,” Singh recalls.
This mutual exchange kept everyone happy and continued for some time. But there was a problem. The colony is small and how often could one order the same dishes again and again even though they were excellent. Two glaring issues came up. First, these people were unable to post what they were doing. The texts were long messages detailing what they were doing for that week. One didn’t want to read such long messages. What was missing was a visual that would attract people and make things easier.
“I launched House of Kitchen (HoK) with an aim that I would be able to provide these home chefs very nominally priced design services. They could either reach out to people on their own or join my platform with a delivery service and reach out to people living in GK 1, or Nehru Place or CR park or Defence Colony. By September I had 500 customers and chefs with different groups for areas like Gurugram, Noida, Delhi had two group. To avoid conflict of interest I don’t add-on chefs from the same area serving the same good. Take an example. If I have four bakers in South Delhi, I will not add a fifth. I can fill the group but no one will get a sale. This continued till April this year. That is when people started asking if COVID meals could be provided. ‘I am down with the virus. Can you provide food’? My chefs were providing exotic dishes. I reached out a few chefs in GK who agreed to provide meals in their area,” Singh recounts.
This started something totally different. There were people who were writing in from Patel Nagar asking if there was someone who could provide home-cooked food because the entire family was down with the virus. Singh only had bakers in that area but she asked if they could provide this service at a nominal rate. Some agreed and the list of demands kept going up. A list was prepared that had 12 chefs with their numbers from HoK willing to provide home food and circulated on social media.
“In a few hours, I was bombarded with calls and messages that we needed food and if you could deliver it there. The list was intended for 500 members on my HoK. I never realised that it would spiral so much. Messages kept pouring in from volunteers as well willing to provide meals. I kept asking people to check the latest date. No one did. I had no option but to pull down my website. All that it has is a list of 300 home chefs providing food. We keep adding the numbers but there is no time to verify this since we are all so busy. Many people thought that this was a great way to establish a home food business. But this service is not for this purpose,” Singh explains. A call is made for a quick interview with a tour of the kitchen to see the level of hygiene.
She recently got a request from the Bar Association of Delhi to sponsor meals to the lawyers down with COVID-19. From April 18, 2021 till May 3, 2021, they have sent out 2.75 lakh meals by 300 home chefs across Delhi. This is not all. Singh has a Meals of Wheel initiative as well.
The van carries 100 lunches and 100 dinner meals to LNJP hospital. “To begin with we would send the van to other hospitals as well since we didn’t know where the need was. But then we went to LNJP and we realised that there was a genuine need. So now, the van goes directly to this hospital. These meals are free of cost. But I can’t sponsor 100 meals each time. We asked people if they would sponsor. We now get sponsors for these meals. We got help from a lady in Singapore who helped us set up the system and sent Rs 90,000. Another lady who sent Rs 1.5 lakh. Now people ask how many days left. The minute we are down to two days, we get money to get this initiative going,” Singh says.