St. Joseph Diner has a new kitchen, lots of equipment and seven times as many clients.

What the Catholic Charities service, which provides meals for the poor, needs is more volunteers.

“We have never had an issue getting volunteers to St. Joseph Diner,” said Ben Broussard, Catholic Charities spokesman. “It has always been an engaging and beautiful experience for volunteers to come and to serve.”

But COVID-19 and a change in how service was offered from the downtown Lafayette location has created some distance between the diner’s intention to feed the hungry and its capacity to do so smoothly. The diner reopened with its new partnership and more ambitious goals about three weeks ago.

For starters, St. Joseph Diner now partners with New Orleans-based Second Harvest Food Bank to serve the hungry in the eight-parish Catholic Diocese of Lafayette. St. Joseph Diner used to serve 2,100 meals a week; with its expanded net, it now it serves some 15,000 meals a week.

The partnership through Second Harvest also used a portion of a $5 million donation from New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees to outfit an expanded kitchen at St. Joseph Diner, now being used to prepare food for the downtown hungry as well as the hungry in far-flung corners of Acadiana. It took several months to secure and move in the new kitchen equipment, as well as to rearrange service as the pandemic set in. For much of that time, St. Joseph Diner, initiated in 1983, operated without volunteer help. When the diner reopened, volunteers did not return in sufficient numbers.

“I underestimated what suspending service for four months at the diner would do,” Broussard said. “After you run a well-oiled, machine for 40 years and suspend it for four or five months, it’s hard to get it back up.”

Broussard said the diner needs 20-30 volunteers a day: 10-15 from 8-noon Monday through Friday, 10-15 from 12:30 to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. About half that number is volunteering now. The work no longer includes serving just food on a plate. It involves working on the larger food service appliances, cooking, packaging, labeling and preparing meals for loading and transportation.

Volunteers will assist with a variety of tasks including packing various food, snack and drink items, making sandwiches, plating meals, packing meals for delivery, cleaning, sweeping and washing dishes. Specific assignments and projects may vary slightly based on kitchen needs, St. Joseph Diner said in an issued statement.

He said volunteers — you must be at least 15 — will be well trained to serve as many shifts as they want. Just bring your own mask; the diner will supply volunteers with the rest. He said the demand for helpers is long term: “The need will be as great in six months as it now.”

He hopes that many people who’ve felt cooped up for months at home will relish the idea of working on a volunteer “team” at the diner. St. Joseph Diner used to turn volunteers away, but Broussard said he hopes that people with spare time will work for several shifts.

Those interested in volunteering can see available shifts and register here: http://catholiccharitiesacadiana.org/volunteer-calendar. Individuals and groups are encouraged to volunteer. Questions regarding volunteer opportunities should be directed to Sarah Baquet, Community Engagement Coordinator at sarahb@catholiccharitiesacadiana.org or (337) 235-4972 ext. 1222.


Email Ken Stickney at kstickney@theadvocate.com.