Diner gets garden produce boost

Fresh vegetables are often hard to come by at St. Joseph Diner, a soup kitchen on Simcoe Street that relies entirely on donations for the meals it serves 365 days a year to anyone who is hungry.

That might be less of problem now that a new garden is sprouting in a lot next door at the site of an old playground that had fallen into disuse.

“The diner gets a lot of canned goods. In order to provide a well-balanced meal for folks, fresh produce is needed,” said St. Joseph Diner Director Leigh Rachal. “It was a big gap.”

Carrots, spinach, peas, mustard greens, beets, turnips and all manner of fall and winter crops now fill a series of large raised beds in the garden.

A few blueberry bushes are starting to settle in, and a sunny spot has been set aside for citrus and other fruit trees.

A large chicken coop awaits the arrival next spring of the birds, which will hopefully keep the diner supplied with plenty of fresh eggs, Rachal said.

Just behind the coop are large compost bins where kitchen scraps from the diner are recycled for use in the garden.

The first planting for the garden was in September, Rachal said, and the inaugural harvest was about three weeks ago — a batch of mustard greens.

Most of the funding to build the garden came from a $6,740 grant from the Pugh Family Foundation, a local philanthropy that supports education and anti-poverty initiatives.

“We push for projects like this: helping someone learn to fish rather than giving them fish,” said JoAnn Pugh, who toured the garden earlier this month and said she was impressed with the progress.

Several other groups have helped out over the past year.

Lafayette Parish Correctional Center inmates built the raised beds, AmeriCorps volunteers built the compost bins, a Boy Scout built the chicken coop and some of the vegetable plant starts were donated by a local gardening cooperative.

“It’s been a real community-involved garden. People really latch on to the idea,” said Sarah Rabalais, administrative coordinator for Lafayette Catholic Service Centers, the umbrella group under which the diner operates.

The diner, which began in 1983, serves free lunches daily to a crowd that averages about 150, Rachal said.

The diner also serves breakfast and dinner to the more than 50 men who live at one of the Lafayette Catholic Service Centers homeless shelters.

The diner relies on volunteers to cook, serve and clean up, and all of the food is either donated or purchased with donated funds.

Rachal said another grant is in the works to fund a horticultural therapy program for some of the men served by the center.“What we find is that when folks are in a relaxed setting, they open up,” Rachal said.

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Lafayette Catholic Service Centers and St. Joseph Diner, visit http://www.catholicservice.org.