Ceres Community Project Brings Healing Food and Youth Empowerment to Alameda

Volunteers make cookies at the Ceres Project location in Alameda. (Kim Stuffelbeam, Ceres Community Project)

It all started with a simple request. In 2006, Cathryn Couch was working as a chef, making home-delivery meals for clients. One day, a friend called and asked: did Couch have any cooking jobs for her teenage daughter? She didn’t, but the friend persisted. Couch eventually came up with a project for her and the daughter: making meals and delivering them to a local homeless center.

After seeing how excited and proud the daughter was after making the meals, Couch decided to replicate their lesson on a grander scale, and in 2007, the Ceres Community Project was born. Named for the Roman goddess of agriculture and nurturing, the Sonoma County-based program recruited teen volunteers to cook healthy, all-organic meals and deliver them to local patients with cancer and other debilitating conditions.

The program took off. That first year, 21 volunteers made 4,500 meals. In 2015, they had over 400 volunteers who prepared over 90,000 meals. They came out with a cookbook. They expanded the program, to Marin and Sonoma Valley, and helped launch similar programs in cities like Eugene, Oregon and Madison, Wisconsin. They partnered with Whole Foods: all the Whole Foods stores in Sonoma and Marin counties sell salads made by Ceres, with a dollar from each pint of salad going back to the organization.

And now, the group has expanded into the East Bay. In February, the Ceres Project opened up in Alameda, in conjunction with the Alameda Point Collaborative. (Much of the funding came from a $100,000 bequest earmarked for an East Bay site left by a Walnut Creek woman who passed away from breast cancer. Generally, their funding comes from a mix of individual, foundation and in-kind donations.) Teens from the Collaborative--a supportive housing community that offers housing and job training to formerly homeless families that have at least one adult with a permanent disability--cook healthy meals (chickpea pumpkin burgers with date chutney, baked salmon with wild rice) with produce from the one-site garden in an after-school program. Adult volunteers then deliver the meals to the Charlotte Maxwell Clinic in Oakland, a nonprofit serving women with cancer and their families whose incomes are at or below 200% of the federal poverty level.

Meals being prepared for clients at the Charlotte Maxwell Clinic during the after-school cooking program.
Meals being prepared for clients at the Charlotte Maxwell Clinic during the after-school cooking program. (Kim Stuffelbeam, Ceres Community Project)

The Alameda program has already been a success, said Aileen Suzara, the location’s Program Coordinator and Chef. “A lot of the kids, I’m seeing their natural leadership come out in the kitchen. I see a spark from some of the kids,” Suzara said. “They have a sense of how this is really touching someone’s life. The kids are resonating especially with the part of connecting to someone--even if they haven’t met yet--through food.”

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The program’s focus on their teen volunteers comes from Couch’s belief in something she once heard from a Buddhist teacher: the most important person in a room is the youngest.

“From an upstream prevention standpoint, if we could influence how young people see their relationship with food--if we can make them excited about the impact of their food choices on their own health, on the health of the people that they love and on the planet--then we’re going to help raise a generation of people who will help to shape a healthier food system and a healthier healthcare system,” she said.

Ceres is also able to make a bigger impact on how people eat through working with teens, she said. “If we change a young person’s eating habits, that’s going to impact them for 60 years. If we have a client who’s 60 and we impact their eating habits, that’s maybe going to impact them for 20 years.”

But the scope of that impact has been surprising, Couch said. When she first started the program, she assumed that the cooking skills the teens learn would be the most valuable part of the program. Instead, “they start to see that they can have power in impacting the world around them through the choices they make with food,” she said. “It’s really about that they matter in the world, that their choices make a difference, and finding that agency in themselves.” That’s especially true in the Alameda program. Many of teens at the Collaborative have spent their lives as the beneficiaries of such services. Seeing that they can have a tangible impact has helped give them a sense of confidence, Couch said.

“All the kids at Ceres learn how to cook and eat kale, but the really transformational moment is when they sit with one of our clients and that client says to them, ‘Thank you for helping save my life,’” Couch said. “Because what young people most need is to feel their belonging as part of a community, to feel their ability to actually influence the world around them.”

Teen volunteers eating together after cooking for the Clinic.
Teen volunteers eating together after cooking for the Clinic. (Kim Stuffelbeam, Ceres Community Project)

While there are other groups in the East Bay that focus on meal delivery for ill clients--Project Open Hand, Meals on Wheels--Ceres occupies a specific place in that landscape. They’re only feeding the Charlotte Maxwell Clinic, which isn’t served by any other food groups, and they’re the only group whose meals are all-organic, which they see as the best choice for both their clients and the environment. Ceres follows the American Institute of Cancer Research’s recommendation that meals should be ⅔ plant-based whole foods, and they don’t include any white flour, white sugar or processed foods and source locally-grown produce as much as possible.

Going forward, Ceres (like Project Open Hand) is working on research projects to prove the health benefits and lower healthcare costs that come from programs like theirs. One day, they hope that health insurers will see what they see--that a plant-based diet can play a significant role in improving the health of ill patients--and incorporate food and nutrition reimbursements into healthcare costs.

But as central as food is to the group’s work and the patient’s healing, there's another facet that’s equally, if not more, important, said Couch. It’s the connection--the connection between volunteer and client, the sense of security, comfort, and caring that comes from eating a homemade meal someone made you.

“I realized that the food was a vehicle for people to feel like they were cared for, that they were part of the community and they were connected. And that is as important a nourishment as what’s in the food itself,” Couch said.

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“We are a food delivery organization; but we are also using that model as a structure to reconnect young people, our adult volunteers, our clients; to help people find their way back to a meaningful way of being connected with one another--because we know that’s important for democracy and it’s also important for people’s health.”

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