How did SevaTruck get started?
I started SevaTruck in 2016. I was inspired by the seva spirit of Guru Nanak Dev Ji, and doing langar seva in today’s world. The idea for SevaTruck came to me from this notion that we tend to do most langar seva in gurdwaras – a concept that has developed and flourished for over 500 years now. In India there’s a gurdwara approximately every half mile, and so most everyone has access to warm meals this way.
But in the Western world, we don’t have this same kind of access to langar through gurdwaras, in terms of availability, awareness, and walking distance. So true langar seva, providing a meal to everyone who needs one, falls short in the gurdwara system in the West. To me, langar seva means serving all in the community who need nourishment – people of all faiths, races and genders, and especially providing a warm meal to someone who doesn’t have access to one normally.
So we needed to get outside the four corners of the gurdwara and deliver meals where they’re most needed.
To illustrate this with a story – I am also the Founder and CEO of the technology company Sevatec. Before I founded SevaTruck, I hired an ice cream truck to visit all of our company’s sites. Out of over 100 employees, only 10 people came down from their offices to get ice cream. I was trying to provide something to my employees, and realized they didn’t need it. I became frustrated, and decided to go to a homeless shelter – 300 people immediately lined up for ice cream. That’s when it dawned on me – too often in our society, we’re providing things to people who don’t need them, and not to the people who do.
This was when the concept of SevaTruck, and going where the need is, emerged in my mind. I bought a used FedEx truck soon after and then converted it into a fully licensed kitchen.
Can you describe the work of Seva Truck, for those who haven’t heard of it before?
SevaTruck is a free meal food truck. We are a nonprofit serving fresh, nutritious, vegetarian meals to local communities in need in the greater Washington D.C. area. D.C. has the sixth highest food insecurity rate in the nation. We successfully expanded to a second food truck serving Detroit, Michigan. SevaTruck has established long-term partnerships with Title I schools and other organizations offering services to underserved youth that currently do not offer free meal programs. Doing this allows us to fill a gap in current programmatic efforts and contribute to a lasting impact. We also serve veterans.
Can you offer advice and inspiration to those who might like to start a similar project, but feel overwhelmed?
My inspiration comes from being a Sikh, and living a Sikh way of life. I think the most important thing is finding an organization that you can get involved and engaged with, and support – financially by donating and physically by doing service. It’s hard. Not everyone needs to get out there and start their own group – just identify something you’re passionate about, find something that strikes a chord in your value system, and see how you can make a meaningful impact.
I support so many organizations, but very few of them if, any, give me the opportunity to actually engage with their seva – usually I am writing a check from far away. Or serving at homeless shelters, where you’re often preparing food in the back versus serving up front. At SevaTruck, in two hours you can prepare food and then engage with those you’re serving. This is a very meaningful experience.
If you have an idea, run with it. Really start to make it happen. I bought the truck before I had a business plan! It forced me to utilize that investment the right way. Too many times we spend too much time planning – I’m a planner, but plans become stale over time and often don’t get started. Say, ‘I won’t wait a week, a month or a year to get something started. I’m going to start small and start something now, see if it makes an impact, then grow from there.’ All seva is valuable, even the small things!
Can you share some tips with our global audience on how they might start their own projects?
Think about what you’re passionate about, start small and see how you can make an impact. Look at your unique capabilities and strengths that might be in need at an organization (eg. technical skills). This is a great way to get engaged quickly and start making an impact.
Do you encounter any challenges when running SevaTruck? How do you overcome them?
Right now our biggest challenge is food storage – we don’t’ have a commissary, but it’s in the cards to build one. We need to identify space and build one, and fundraise for this so we can expand. We tend to buy food during the day, then prepare it that evening and cook it the next day. This requires lots of trips to grocery stores.
Another challenge we have had historically is finding weekend distribution systems. We always have places to go on the weekdays (we have the schools and 40 organizations we partner with). Some places only want us to come once a quarter or once a month, some want once a week. We are going some places once a day now because of COVID.
SevaTruck is in business for times when our constituents don’t have access to food – typically evenings, weekends and holidays. Outside of COVID, kids would typically get breakfast and lunch at school . We’d fill in the dinner gap and go to the schools and give them a warm meal for the evening (typically at 4 or 4:30 p.m.) They built a school program that incorporated our meal along with 1.5 hour homework sessions – they found standardized scores, participation and grades went way up and improved radically over a two-year period.
We’re still trying to identify places we can go on the weekends to provide kids with nutritious things to eat outside of school time.
Can you share a high moment or inspiring story that you experienced with SevaTruck?
I’m in awe of the level of commitment that I see from the teachers and staff at the schools we serve. One of the things that pushes us and inspires us to do this every day is seeing individuals who give their lives every day – these principals and teachers. Every time we go to these schools, these individuals are so energetic, so optimistic, so ready to commit and do service. They are so appreciative and so loving. I’ve gotten so much out of these partnerships.
It’s so motivational to see these other folks – their real job is to be a principal or a teacher, but they’re there after hours at school every day to make sure these kids have a level playing field in life. This happens everywhere we go, all the organizations have such inspiring individuals I wouldn’t’ have met otherwise. The level of inspiration and gratitude from our volunteers and sevadars is also so inspiring.
SevaTruck has created a sangat around it from all walks of life – Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Atheists, South Asians, African Americans – all have come together to say, ‘We’re all going to serve together.’ This is an inspiring community trying to live life’s purpose, and making service a big component of our lives.
Do you draw inspiration from Sikhism when doing Seva?
I believe that the more you’ve been given, the more is expected of you. I draw inspiration from realization of the concept of Ik Jot – the pervasive spirit throughout all creation.
The same way Guru Nanak sahib saw Sacha Sauda – he gave the investment money his dad gave him to feed the poor, and knew this was the best investment. This concept lives 500 years later. It’s so powerful. This act of being selfless has permeated a group of now 35 million people in the world through Sikh beliefs, which is inspiring.
I aim to carry on this legacy by doing my small part. We are understanding the impact of this message, and doing the best we can to do our part to honor this legacy and take this initiative in the local communities we live in. I believe this is part of being a Sikh, and living a Sikhi life. ‘Sacha’ means truth. ‘Sauda’ means a deal, bargain or barter. “Make a good or true deal.”
Guru Nanak made a truthful deal. His father instructed him to go to the market and make an investment that will give great returns. He made such a great truthful deal by investing this money in feeding the poor, and this investment is still giving great returns 500 years later. This is the concept of Sacha Sauda.
Sonny Kakar founded SevaTruck in 2016.
He is the Founder and CEO of the tech company Sevatec. As CEO, Sonny leads the firm’s strategic development, growth and transformation into the advanced technology company that drives innovation in software, systems and processes for the federal government.
Visit SevaTruck’s Website: https://sevatruck.org
Do you have an “Aquarian Sevadar” in your community? We want to share their story.
Please write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, if you have someone in mind who has an inspiring story to tell.