Introduction to Langar… Sat Sri Akal (ਸਤਿ ਸ੍ਰੀ ਅਕਾਲ)…
During my undergraduate studies at Aberystwyth University in Wales, I was very fortunate to meet a decent young man from Hong Kong named ‘Janoo.’ Janoo was born and raised in Hong Kong, he is Sikh and has ethnic origins from Patiala, Punjab, India. I and Janoo became close friends during our time in university and we are still in contact until today. One day, Janoo’s mother posted a video on his Facebook wall about langar in the UK. I watched it and I honestly shed a blissful tear.
Langar is a practice where anyone could visit a gurdwara (Sikh Temple) and have a free hot cooked vegetarian meal with no questions asked. Anyone is welcome to share the meal regardless of race, age, ethnicity, class, gender, and religion. The food served is vegetarian so it could be catered to most people’s dietary needs and requirements. The practice is run and funded by a community of volunteers in the gurdwara where anyone could come in and help with the cooking, washing, serving, etc. During langar, people walk in to the gurdwara’s langar hall, get their food served by volunteers, then sit down and eat together. There are four core Sikh principles embedded under the idea of langar: (1) equality (2) hospitality (3) service (4) charity. Sikhs generally highlight and promote the first principle equality as the most important component during langar. Whether women or man, young or old, poor or rich, no matter what race/ethnicity or religion you are – everyone shares the same food, sit down side-by-side and eat together.
One Sunday in early November 2015, I was very lucky to have langar for the first time in a gurdwara. Me coming from Thailand and a follower of Theravada Buddhism, I have not yet had much exposure to the Sikhism’s places of worship. My friend Jaspreet (a Sikh friend from Wolverhampton, England) took me to a gurdwara in Sheffield named ‘Shri Guru Gobind Singh Ji Gurdwara.’ This gurdwara is a small gurdwara and they mostly do religious practices (including langar) on Sundays. However, for large gurdwaras, they are open 24/7 and 7 days a week where langar is served throughout. When we arrived to the gurdwara, we first went upstairs to the hall for prayers and hymns. Before we went upstairs, everyone needs to have their head covered with a piece of garment as a sign of respect. The prayers and hymns were in formal Punjabi and I was very fascinated with what was going on. After the hymns and prayers, we went downstairs to the langar hall, I had my first ever langar meal, and I have to say that the food plus whole experience was amazing! (Photo below…)
UK Food Banks + Gurdwaras – Relation to Food Theories + Debates
Recently in the UK, we are seeing more vulnerable people (e.g. the poor and homeless) preferring to go to gurdwaras for food rather than food banks. This phenomenon has small media coverage from the Independent and the BBC (BBC video). There has not been extensive academic research to why this is so. However, it is speculated that it is because vulnerable people can get access to a hot cooked meal rather than food ingredients that food banks give out. Nonetheless, both food banks and gurdwaras are playing a vital role in tackling hunger issues in the UK.
A statistical report released in April 2015 by the Trussell Trust (UK’s largest food bank charity) estimated that for the first time, the number of people given three days’ emergency food has reached over 1 million people. This is a shocking number compared to that of last year’s (around 900,000 people) which is an alarming increase of 19%. With this increasing problem in hand, the UK is having a growing problem of food insecurity.
According to the FAO, the working definition of food security is ‘when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food which meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.’ As for food insecurity, the definition is the opposite of what food security is. From Trussell Trust’s statistics, a huge number of vulnerable people do not have economical access to sufficient amounts of foods. This trend has been increasing heavily in recent years and it results in more people seeking free food from food banks and gurdwaras. With the sheer amount of hungry people in the UK, it can be argued that the UK is becoming food insecure.
Based on Jackson & the CONANX group (2013)‘s critique on Drèze and Sen (1991) and Sen (1981), it is argued that the occurrence of hunger results in the failure of the political and institutional system rather than the lack of food resources. Hence, this emerges into the discourse of the political economy of hunger. It further declares that famine results from the restrictions and accessibility to the most vulnerable being able to feed them. These debates can be applied to the UK context because it seems that there is food available, but people from vulnerable backgrounds lack purchasing power to obtain these basic needs possibly due to failure of the UK governing system.
Food banks and gurdwaras are doing their best to tackle issues of food insecurity and hunger in the UK. However, they are only able to solve the end result and not the root cause of the problem. As Riches (2002) asserts, wider discussion needs to occur with governments and charitable food organisations (e.g. food banks and gurdwaras) on how to solve this hazardous problem. If this issue is left uncontested, food hunger and food insecurity will worsen badly as time goes. Who will then be left to solve it? It will be a duty left for those charitable food organisations to deal with the problem rather than the government itself.