ASU Lodestar Center


Jennifer Caraway, third from left, opened The Joy Bus Diner in Phoenix to support her nonprofit organization, which delivers chef-crafted meals to cancer patients. Photo courtesy Joy Bus.

Nonprofit Social Innovation Hub: Joy Bus Diner, a restaurant for good

Photo courtesy Joy Bus.

by Troy Hill, ASU Lodestar Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Innovation

October 20, 2021

Jennifer Caraway’s friend, Joy, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2011. She helped her friend through some of the most difficult times of her life, partly by bringing her food when she wasn’t able to cook it herself, and partly just by being there for her. Tragically, Joy’s cancer claimed her life, but Jennifer’s experiences inspired the idea to continue serving people in similar situations.

Jennifer started to cook meals for people going through cancer treatments and delivered them herself. It started with just a couple people, then quickly started to grow. That’s when she founded The Joy Bus. Now, the organization serves over 75 clients per week, cooking them unique, delicious meals delivered by volunteers.

For years, Jennifer cooked the meals each week in her own kitchen at home or using the kitchens of chefs she was friends with, but in 2016, she knew she needed to change things up.

She came to the board with a business idea: open up a commercial kitchen and diner. Two days a week, they use the kitchen to prepare the meals for their nonprofit clients, then the rest of the week they open up as a diner to create an earned revenue stream for the organization. Later that year, The Joy Bus Diner opened and started serving members of the community.

From then until the start of the COVID pandemic, the diner helped the organization not just with their finances, but with connecting to more members of the community. They have largely been supported by the community since, through a combination of volunteers, donations and customers at the diner.

Unfortunately, the diner closed temporarily for COVID, but they never stopped serving their cancer clients. They implemented safety protocols to ensure the health of their immuno-compromised patients, but they knew it was more important than ever to serve them in this time.

Caraway herself ran the kitchen and the nonprofit for many years, but they brought on a new chef for the grand reopening this October — well-known Phoenix chef Josh Hebert of Posh. Megan Norton, program director for The Joy Bus, said that Hebert sees the potential in the Joy Bus and wants to do something more with his life, and that it is a dream to be able to work with him.

The Joy Bus has always been about more than just dropping off food. It’s about supporting people in an extremely vulnerable moment.

“When we started having volunteers, they really crafted our program into something that was way more than a meal,” Norton said. “They are a group of volunteers who work to get to know the patients that they serve. A lot of them create relationships that last through cancer treatment and going into the rest of their lives.”

The volunteers often check on the clients after they’ve delivered the food and help out around the house if they have mobility issues or other areas of need.

“They take out the trash, we have a really great volunteer who has rehung curtains for a patient — just things like that,” Norton said. “They really get to know them, they get to know their families and develop so that they can be that support system that the cancer patient really needs.”

Undergoing a treatment for cancer can be one of the most physically, emotionally and spiritually draining experiences for a human being to go through — and many people go through it alone. Joy Bus focuses on the people who don’t have a community of support and provides that, along with a tasty and healthy meal, of course.

They also have a large focus on nutrition and nutrition education.

“We want our food to be comforting and be joyful, but we want to support their treatment as well make sure we're giving them fresh produce,” Norton said. “All of our produce we use in The Joy Bus Diner is organic produce, straight from the farms around Phoenix.”

Each week, they also choose a “superfood” or “powerhouse” ingredient, and write up a note about it for the patient. They hope that these push the patients to incorporate healthier ingredients in their diet that will help them with their battle.