A unique and generous food program in the Sonoma Valley grew out of an unusual bartering exchange between a chef and a riding instructor.
Cathryn Couch, now the director of the Ceres Community Project, whose mission “is to support people in crisis due to a serious health challenge, with nourishing meals, nutrition education and the caring support of the community,” first became a provider of extra-healthy food when she parlayed delivered meals for riding lessons back in 1990.
When friends began to ask her to do the same for them on a paying basis, she recognized the market, and thus began “Speranza,” a healthy food delivery service in Marin County, which lasted successfully from 1992 to 2003.
But the “aha” moment came after a client asked her to help motivate her recalcitrant teenage daughter Megan, by teaching her to cook. The girl was only a lukewarm learner until Cathryn came up with the idea to cook specifically for two low-income cancer patients that she knew of in the neighborhood. When Megan finally met the recipients of her meals, and saw their gratitude, she was extremely moved, and wanted to do even more for the underserved.
This intense shift in attitude was not lost on Cathryn. She now began to envision a program where nutritious and, above all, tasty meals could be provided at no cost to clients with severe health problems, who were unlikely to eat well or much at all. And these meals would be prepared by volunteer teenage chefs. This ambitious program became the Ceres Community Project.
Couch came by her culinary expertise going back to her college days at the University of Michigan, where she cooked for the big eaters at a fraternity. Then after garnering an MBA in Women’s Studies, she went to work for the Hunger Project, an organization self-described as “committed to the sustainable end of world hunger.” Here she learned the importance of attracting dedicated donors and volunteers, which are the lifeblood of any charitable organization.
In 2007, Cathryn’s knowledge and passion came together, with the help of good friends Cherie Lippard and Judi Pereira, to form the Ceres Project to serve 28 families with a seriously ill member. (Ceres feeds all the members of a family, not just the client, so that they can all benefit from the healthy food and the togetherness.)
With 12,000 donated dollars and 21 teen volunteers, they set up a kitchen in the Sebastopol Community Center, and began to cook and deliver amazing meals, and the feelings of companionship and community to their clients.
The resulting growth has been phenomenal. In 2014, the budget is 1.3 million dollars. There are 500 teen volunteers in three centers, including Sonoma. Several hundred adults volunteer as well, to deliver the 85,000 meals, help in the kitchens and mentor the teens.
Ceres has influenced eight similar programs to open around the country, with more to come. Ceres has its own organic garden in Sebastopol, a dozen local organic farms donate produce, and Oliver’s Markets and Whole Foods give 50 percent discounts on meats, fish and poultry.
Look at this typical meal, of restaurant quality: Rosemary Roasted Salmon, Roasted Root Vegetables, Braised Red & Green Cabbage, and Lily’s Coconut Pudding With Strawberry Sauce for dessert. Everything is fresh, organic, and made from scratch. (You can read client testimonials online at Ceresproject.org. The Annual Report is good reading, too)
Cathryn Couch has created a truly remarkable organization, one that embodies the tenets of kindness and generosity, and teaches responsibility and caring to the young participants. As Cathryn says, ”It’s not about chopping onions, it’s about making a difference in someone’s life”.