Jennifer Caraway’s ‘Joy Bus’ Brings Nutritious Meals to Cancer Patients

Head shot of Jennifer Caraway of The Joy Bus

Have you ever met somebody with a zest for life so infectious that you can feel your own heart racing as you talk to them? Somebody with a passion so strong you become swept up in the momentum of their cause? Somebody that’s adding real joy to the world through their commitment to the community?

We have, and her name is Jennifer Caraway. If you haven’t heard of her by now, where have you been people? Jennifer is the founder of The Joy Bus Charity, a Phoenix not-for-profit organization aimed at giving homebound cancer patients a fresh, chef-inspired meal and a friendly face. And now, more recently, The Joy Bus Diner, a 100% not-for-profit restaurant that supports The Joy Bus Charity efforts. Her smile has been featured on the national television series, Chopped where her winning creations earned her $10,000 to invest in her charity and the recent web series, Returning the Favor with Mike Rowe.

Jennifer is truly a local, hometown hero and somebody we couldn’t wait to talk with in our latest blog series, Food for Thought. Her mission to provide cancer patients with a beautiful meal began when her dear friend Joy was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2011, but her roots as a chef go back further than that.

“I started when I was 14, I was a dishwasher at a local Mexican restaurant,” Jennifer remembers. “The cool thing about restaurants is you can go anywhere and get a job. I fell into that world and I’ve traveled a lot because of it. I love that you can tell so much about a culture by their food.”

What started out as one friend reaching out to another during a time of need quickly evolved into a Valley-wide army of chefs and volunteers organized by one guiding principle: deliver real food to real people in a real time of need.


 

JA: Could you tell us a little bit about the mission behind The Joy Bus and The Joy Bus Diner?

JC: It all started at the end of 2011. I was creating meals and little treats for my friend Joy when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. I didn’t know what else to do to show her that I cared for her. But food has always been my thing, so I started creating treats to stop by and hang out and show her that I cared for her.

I don’t sleep very well ever, so one night I was watching the movie Mr. Holland’s Opus and just started bawling and was thinking, “What am I doing with my life? What am I doing to contribute to our society?” The next couple of visits I spent with Joy I just kept wondering if there were people out there who don’t have a good support system. It was really Joy that inspired me.

I eventually spoke at a Case Management Society of America chapter meeting and they slowly started referring patients to me. It took me three years to grow the program. I’m a single mom and so it took me a little bit longer to grow it, but I eventually outgrew my home and I began looking for a commercial kitchen to cook in. I proposed to our charity board that we open a restaurant and have 100% of the proceeds go directly to the mission of the charity. When we opened almost four years ago, we were making 12 home visits per week and now we’re up to 50!

JA: What an amazing trajectory your idea has taken! Where do you see the future of the charity?

JC: I would like to possibly expand a little bit into a larger location. We’re really small and we’re pretty capped out at the space. It would be cool if we had more space to do what we do best. It would be great if we could reach homebound cancer patients in other ways throughout the U.S. too, maybe through recipes or teaching.

JA: Here at Delta Dental of Arizona, we really do believe that oral health is health. We try to encourage our audience to think of their health from a holistic standpoint, meaning that everything you do, from eating well to taking care of your mouth, can impact your health in a positive way. Can you talk about why providing nutritious meals to cancer patients is so important? What does access to high-quality food do for this population?

JC: I honestly got a little push back from people who were used to eating a standard meat and potatoes diet. But once you get real food in front of people and have them taste it, and have them discover how they feel afterward, that changes. The people that we’re feeding are already in a compromised immune position, so we want to give them foods that give them energy.

We also try to put food in front of them with certain ingredients that we can educate on. We pull out one ingredient in their patient bag that they get each week and explain why that ingredient is important. For example, turmeric. We’ll explain why you should add turmeric to your diet, that it’s anti-inflammatory, etc. Hopefully they can cook more on their own using the tools we give them. And I’m learning myself—there are so many veggies that I hadn’t even seen before. The things the farmers grow seasonally, we take them, and I look at them and try to find a recipe based on them.

JA: How do you provide your meals on The Joy Bus and at The Joy Bus Diner? Do you rely on volunteers? How can people get involved?

JC: We wouldn’t be able to do it without our volunteers. They took my little idea and turned it into something amazing. We have probably 25 volunteers that show up every Friday and deliver patient meals. They take ownership of what they’re doing. They build lifelong friendships and become part of the families they volunteer with. They’ve really built an organic community. It’s not something I planned. You can go to our website, joybusdiner.com and there’s a volunteer sign-up link. We also need volunteers in the restaurant every day.

JA: Tell us about your background as a chef. What led you down this career path?

JC: I feel very fortunate that I’m in love with food and have gotten to experience so much in life because of it. I’ve line cooked, prep cooked, front of house, back of house, served, bartended, I’ve owned four restaurants and have opened about 10 for other organizations. After my last restaurant I said, “I’m never doing this again.” But for The Joy Bus it made sense. We needed a kitchen, we needed the walls and it’s really worked. It’s created a community.

JA: In 2018, you appeared on Food Network’s Chopped and won money as well as built more awareness around The Joy Bus. What did the show do for the charity and how has momentum built over time?

JC: The coolest thing that came out of me doing Chopped was meeting this little girl, McKenzie. She was on vacation in Arizona from Kansas City. She came into the diner with her chef coat [and] her chef hat. She totally fanned out and wanted to cook with me and hang out with me. She hung out with me all day! But also, the money that we got from the show helped a lot. At that point, we were still month-to-month, so that $10,000 really helped us get to the next level. We’d never had that much money in the bank before; it was a big deal to be able to breathe. And it brough more people into the diner.

JA: After appearing recently on Mike Rowe’s web series, Returning the Favor, what was the reception like? What was the experience of being on the show like?

JC: Everybody was so kind; they really went above and beyond to help us. Again, when I started the organization, I really thought it would be me hiding in the kitchen. I didn’t realize I’d be in front of people with cameras and it’s super overwhelming for me. But I’m so thankful they chose us, and it’s really helped the business and the diner. We take the bus to events or I’ll drive it to the diner. It’s so beautiful. They did such a good job. The producers did so much work. And the eggs! The eggs are our biggest expense and they are amazing! The yolk is bright yellow and orange, and we have two years of eggs now for the diner. It’s a very big deal.

JA: Speaking of eggs, the The Joy Bus Diner is full of classic breakfast and lunch items, made with farm-fresh ingredients from scratch. Can you tell us how you developed the menu and what role healthy ingredients play in the menu?

JC: Everything on our menu is from scratch—our biscuits, bread, gravy, dressings, everything. To me, obviously, it’s important to eat real food but it also tastes better. I think we need to do a better job of educating the customer on what real food tastes like. So even if we serve biscuits and gravy, it’s real. It’s so important to me to serve a quality product, and our prices are so low—I didn’t want to price anybody out from being able to give. You can come in and have bacon and eggs and give to a charity.

JA: What’s your favorite go-to healthy ingredient to cook with?

JC: Tumeric. It has such a mellow flavor profile that you really can hide it in everything, and people don’t even know it’s there. It can be easily added to anything.

JA: Do you have a favorite cuisine to cook or eat yourself?

JC: Mexican. I can eat it 14 times a day! My husband is so over it. I love it! I lived in Mexico for about six years, all through several different states. I fell in love with the people, the culture, the food.

JA: What trends are you noticing in restaurants or in the way people are dining and eating?

JC: I’m noticing that the consumer is becoming more educated in looking for more real food, just not as fast as we would like them to be.

JA: When you’re at work or in the restaurant, what are you happiest doing?

JC: Honestly, I’m happiest watching the way that all my customers interact with each other. The community that we’ve built, it gives me goose bumps. It’s truly a community and it’s so rad. It makes me so happy; I just want to cry when I think about it. Every table feels totally comfortable talking about the treatment they’re going through or talking about if they’ve lost somebody to cancer. They’re crying and laughing, and they feel comfortable and they feel like friends. I don’t know how it happened or how to recreate it, but we are super lucky.

JA: Who do you admire in your industry? Who pushes you further?

JC: I would have to say all the chefs, all of the local chefs here. We would not be here without them. They would help prepare the meals when we started, and they still are. These are legit James Beard Award-winning chefs who have helped us get to where we are. We actually have a cookbook coming out in the next few months called More than a Meal featuring 12 of the local chefs who have helped us along the way.

JA: What’s one thing a home cook can do to up their game?

JC: Taste your food and don’t use 32 ingredients. You don’t need 32 ingredients to make something good. Keep it simple so you can actually taste the food.

JA: What does healthy eating mean to you?

JC: Knowing where your food comes from (and a box doesn’t count). Eating real food. It’s super simple, just eat real food.


 

Author’s Note: This interview was conducted before the recent COVID-19 pandemic became widespread. We recently talked with Jennifer and she said she’s had to temporarily reduce her staff. “We have been doing our best to find catering jobs and we are still forging ahead on patient meal delivery every week with obvious additional precautionary measures. I am hopeful that there is an end in sight soon,” said Jennifer.

If you’d like to help, consider becoming a volunteer. They are desperately seeking volunteers to deliver meals and pick up produce. You can also provide financial support through a charitable donation. For updates on The Joy Bus and more ways to get involved, visit their website and sign up to get their newsletter and follow The Joy Bus on Facebook and Instagram.


recipe photo of Lamb and Sweet Potato Meatballs with Mint Gremolata and Persian Cucumbers Tzatziki over Tumeric-Scented Rice
Photo by Debby Wolvos

Jennifer’s recipe for “Lamb and Sweet Potato Meatballs with Mint Gremolata and Persian Cucumbers Tzatziki over Tumeric-Scented Rice” from her upcoming cookbook, More than a Meal.

For the meatballs (makes 50 golf ball-sized meatballs)

Ingredients

  • 5 lbs ground lamb
  • ½ cup finely diced onion
  • 3 minced garlic cloves
  • 1 cup shredded sweet potato
  • 2 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp cumin
  • 1 tsp pimiento
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • ½ tsp nutmeg

Directions: Incorporate all ingredients and form golf ball size portions. Cook for 11 minutes at 350 degrees (convection).

For the gremolata

Ingredients:

  • 3 minced garlic cloves
  • Zest of 1 lemon
  • ½ cup finely chopped parsley
  • ½ cup finely chopped mint
  • 1 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tsp salt
  • Juice of one-half lemon

Directions: Combine all gremolata ingredients together

For the tzatziki

Ingredients:

  • 1 Persian cucumber, shredded
  • 1 cup Greek yogurt
  • 1 clove finely minced garlic
  • Juice of 1 lemon

Directions: Combine all tzatziki ingredients together

Tumeric Rice Directions: Sautee 2 cups of jasmine rice with 1 tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil and 1 tablespoon of ground turmeric. Cook until rice turns almost clear (approx. 2 minutes). Stir continuously. Add 4 cups of water, bring to a boil and simmer until done.

To serve: Fill plates with jasmine rice and top with meatballs dressed with gremolata and tzatziki. Serve with sliced tomatoes and cucumbers.

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