“We create health for people, communities, and the planet through love, healing food, and empowering the next generation.”
I first volunteered for Ceres in 2013. When my children got to school age, I started a second career. I went to a holistic culinary school, Bauman College, for a ten-month intensive program and an externship to complete it. That’s how I became a mentor in the Ceres kitchen cooking with teens.
The Ceres mission statement is: “We create health for people, communities, and the planet through love, healing food, and empowering the next generation.” We do this by supporting individuals dealing with serious illness with free or low-cost, nutrient-rich prepared meals, made with love and delivered to their homes by our caring volunteers. We also empower young people as volunteer gardeners and chefs, giving them direct, hands-on experience of the difference that fresh, healthy foods and community make, and of the value of their contribution.
I live close by the Sebastopol kitchen, and after a shift at Ceres, I’d have a smile on my face on the entire walk home. It was so rewarding and fun! I applied for and got an Associate Chef position, leading the kitchen on certain days, and also being responsible for scheduling all the teen volunteers and coordinating all aspects of our youth program.
The Teen Program has many aspects. We have a daily Teen Circle for half an hour, where they sample Ceres meals, eat a snack, and learn about a topic such as nutrition, food systems, climate change, work-ready skills, or ways of being. We have about 60% girls and 40% boys.
Another aspect of the Teen Program is leadership development.
Teen leaders meet every other month. They help to improve the programs, and we give them leadership training. They get their own chef coat with their name on it. In the garden, teen leaders wear a Ceres hat.
My eldest is now a teen volunteer at Ceres.
While we were talking at a table outside the Sebastopol Ceres kitchen, a volunteer came by and swooped up large plastic tubs of kitchen scraps and loaded them in her truck to take them for composting in the Ceres Garden.
Since the pandemic, on any given kitchen day, there are two to three chefs helped by kitchen assistants. Most of the kitchen assistants are former teen leaders. These are paid positions. This has allowed us to quadruple our meals, as the demand was so great.
The teens’ energy is incredible, and they are so capable and smart, and interested in improving our world. Teens will often say, It’s such a relief being here! because they can leave behind all the other pressures of life, and work with a team from different schools and different ages, and have fun. It’s a safe place for them to come and get mentoring from another adult, a trusted adult who is not their parent.
Some high schools challenge their students to do senior projects, such as How a non-profit operates, or Ceres and nutrition. Some students have done projects for Ceres, for example, on volunteer outreach.
In 2016 we went into partnership with Social Advocates for Youth (SAY) in Santa Rosa. SAY had a commercial kitchen on a former Sutter hospital site that was donated to them. I opened the new site. It was a really interesting process. We needed to replace equipment, and design and outfit the kitchen space.
We had more volunteers than we could handle, both teens and adults, and I was faced with the challenge of all new volunteers to train. We reached out to our teen leaders in Sebastopol to help start the kitchen and train all the volunteers. They were true leaders in helping us open this new kitchen. Everyone learned fast. We started with just 20 clients at two days a week. A couple of months later we increased the kitchen to three days a week, and we were serving 60 families. We were continually growing until right before the pandemic, in February 2020, when we got to five days with two deliveries each week, serving 120 families. We wanted to utilize the kitchen fully.
We also serve about 120 families in Sebastopol and that kitchen is also open five days a week. That’s a total of around 250 families in Sonoma County, and 60 in Marin. We’re currently serving 200,000 meals per year. We don’t have a waiting list, so we are meeting the demand.
A whole effort goes into advocacy for medically tailored meals. The California Food is Medicine Coalition (CAL-FIMC) led by our CEO and Founder, Cathryn Couch, has been instrumental in getting MediCal to provide
During the pandemic, Ceres received all kinds of opportunities through the county, such as providing meals to seniors needing In-Home Support Services (IHSS) who were not able to have caregivers come to their homes. We also received a variety of grants for providing meals to seniors with different health conditions or depression.
For many years since 2007, when we first started, people only heard of us by word of mouth. Now people are beginning to realize the multi-dimensional importance of what Ceres does. We are now one of the official emergency food providers in Sonoma County in the event of fire, earthquake, pandemics, etc.
Local and national government organizations are understanding that providing calories is not enough. You need nutritious meals. We’re advocating for this to become a standard.
Demand is rising. We’re now getting medical referrals. Another pilot project is providing meals to low-income pregnant women in Santa Rosa and West County clinics. So much is happening around health and food insecurity.
In 2017 we wanted to add a garden on our Santa Rosa site. The space outside the SAY building used to be a lawn. First, we had to get funding sources. It has turned into a beautiful, organic garden providing produce for the kitchen, training for teens, and pollination and bird habitat.
The Marin site was founded as an affiliate of Ceres and was located for eleven years in San Rafael. It joined Ceres in 2013 at three days a week with an incredibly dedicated team of teens and staff. They cover all of Marin County except for West Marin. They recently moved to a leased building in the Greek Orthodox Church in Novato only fifteen minutes away from their former site. They serve 60 families. It’s got good energy. Novato’s not as centrally located but it can also attract teens from Petaluma.
There are nine affiliate Ceres organizations in different states, and one in Denmark. Each organization comes here for three days of training, during which we go through our operating manual. We’ll be training three or four new affiliates in 2022. One of them is an organization in Nashville that first bought our Nourishing Connections Cookbook. They are a husband, wife, and five children with a farm, who wanted to support their local community. They’ve been providing medically tailored meals to a hospital, and started a youth program and a farmer’s market. They now want to join the Ceres family and the affiliate network and get ongoing support from Ceres.
Affiliates participate in regular calls with Cathryn Couch, our founder, and Chief Executive Officer, and with staff. They access our recipes, and there’s an annual convening. We last got together just before the pandemic in Chicago to do in-depth training on how to work with youth. I just did a call with all the affiliates yesterday. We cover different aspects each month. Some groups have become completely independent, like The Teen Kitchen Project outside Santa Cruz.
To learn more about Ceres and the many ways you can support them, please visit www.
Winter Solstice Shine
They have come for fine berries,
in droves, in lines.
A few flapfuls and gulps
and off they fly
to sing praise in the oaks,
firs, and pines.
Drunken whistles echo under
rusty-orange chests pressed
on bright red wine.