Thousands fed as Edmonton restaurant nears a year of free meals

For an hour a day, seven days a week, a Mill Woods restaurant serves up free meals to anyone in need. What started as a way to help people at the beginning of the pandemic, is still going nearly a year later. 

'This is a community project and we have become a bigger family now'

The hard-working staff at Dil-E-Punjab includes, from left to right, Gagan Karoo, Bharat Lohar, Sufyan Asif, owner Imran Javaid, Samina Javaid, Ramandeep Kaur, and Ali Javaid. They have been making an extra 90-100 meals per day to hand out to people in need. (Min Dhariwal/CBC)

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What began as a small initiative aimed at helping hungry people at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic 10 months ago has since dished out thousands of free meals.

"I thought, 'It will run for a month or two and we will all fight off [COVID-19] and we will be back to normal,'" said Varinder Bhullar, president of Green Scholars of Alberta, an Edmonton non-profit that teaches kids about their Punjabi and Gujarati cultural roots.

"I would have never thought that we would be still fighting [COVID-19] when we started."

In April 2020, Bhullar approached Dil-E-Punjab's owner, Imran Javaid, with the idea for the free meals. They knew each other through mutual friends. Bhullar had relied on the restaurant to cater some of his business events.

Tucked into a strip mall in the Mill Woods neighbourhood of Crawford Plains, Dil-E-Punjab is now serving more than 100 free meals a day to anyone who asks. The meals are handed out seven days a week, between 6 and 7 p.m. 

"Last month we gave 3,400-plus meals," Bhullar told CBC News.

The free meals are funded by the community and government grants; the restaurant takes no profit. (Min Dhariwal/CBC)

All they ask is that people let them know they're coming, so they can make sure they have enough.

When they first started on April 10, 2020, they were handing out about 40 meals a day. Bhullar said media coverage and social media helped get the word out.

"It was spreading to people that need it as well as spreading to people who want to help," Bhullar said. 

"So this is not me and Imran doing it, this is the community who is doing it. This is a community project and we have become a bigger family now."

Varinder Bhullar, left and Imran Javaid hold bags of free meals in April of 2020, when the initiative was just getting started. (Min Dhariwal/CBC)

A.J. Mand, a regular at Dil-E-Punjab, says he was struck by the generosity one evening after seeing meals served to a van full of people.

"When you're in desperate times, people like these in the community really help others," Mand said. "Hopefully someday it'll be passed onto others."

'Touched my heart'

Bhullar is seeing that generosity come back. In January, he got a call from a woman who said she wanted to meet him at the restaurant.

Assuming she wanted a meal, he agreed. When she arrived, instead of taking a plate, she handed him an envelope.

"She said, 'I was not working and I was coming every day,'" Bhullar recalled. "'Today I'm working. I want to pay that back.'

"So she handed me — maybe not a lot of money — but whatever she could do ... that touched my heart."

'Giving is a responsibility'

Community contributions and some help from the Alberta government have kept the kitchen going. Javaid doesn't make a profit from the meals.

The program will continue for as long as it can be kept going. 

"I believe giving is a responsibility," Bhullar said. "It's not something we are doing above and beyond."

With files from Min Dhariwal