A Sebastopol-based non-profit that prepares nutritious, organic meals for the chronically ill while providing teens with opportunities to learn life skills served its one-millionth meal last month.
Since it began in 2007, the Ceres Community Project has expanded to include three kitchens and two gardens in the North Bay, including Sebastopol, Santa Rosa and San Rafael. At the kitchens and gardens, teens 14 and up can learn to grow organic food and prepare meals from scratch alongside adult volunteers.
The meals are then donated to area residents living with chronic diseases like cancer, who typically receive four meals per family member for 12-24 weeks. The meals are sent to the entire family in an effort to encourage families to learn about and make a practice of making and consuming healthy homemade meals.
According to Ceres Communications Director Deborah Ramelli, the non-profit was conceived about 14 years ago when then personal chef and caterer Cathryn Couch took on a teenage protégé. Because the teen, the child of one of Couch’s friends, had little professional culinary experience, the two worked together making meals from scratch, which they then donated to chronically ill community members and their families.
Their initial arrangement was set to last four weeks, but Couch was moved by the graciousness of the meal recipients—not to mention the effect it had on her teenage trainee, who she has said seemed to stand “six inches higher” for the experience.
Couch soon founded the Ceres Community Project in Sebastopol in 2007, and it has grown ever since, with locations opening up in San Rafael in 2010 and Santa Rosa in 2016. Last year alone, Ceres served over 180,000 meals during a time when healthy eating and community support were needed the most.
But the Ceres Community Project has grown into more than merely a free meal service—it provides training to youths while educating families in the community on topics from healthy diet to reducing your carbon footprint to insect ecology.
“We believe the health of an individual, the community and the planet are all intertwined around food and healthy eating at home,” Ramelli said.
Through the program teens have the opportunity to develop important life skills such as leadership and personal responsibility, according to Ramelli.
Teens might start off in the garden where they learn sustainable farming practices, nurturing produce from seeds to fruit. In the kitchen, they learn how to work in a professional food service environment, prepping, cooking and packaging meals which are then delivered by adult volunteers.
Youth volunteers come from more than 50 schools, and some come from home school environments. A three-month commitment is asked for, but Ramelli said many teens stay around for 4, 5 or even 6 years. After having been with the organization for an extended period of time, youth can become “team leaders,” and are given a white chef’s coat with their name embroidered on it—in addition to more responsibility and experience.
But the Ceres Community Project has had a much farther reach than Marin County. After releasing a cookbook (alongside free recipes available on the website), the organization has been contacted by people all over the country and as far as Denmark, interested in starting a similar program in their own communities.
Nine similar organizations have participated in Ceres’ training and certification program, spreading the simple idea of providing those in need with healthy, prepared meals across the country and world.
“We have grown a lot, but at the heart of what we do, it is still the simple act of cooking for other people,” Ramelli said. “When someone is going through an isolating illness, it can be isolating. Cooking for other people is such a nourishing, fundamental act. Underneath the food itself is the feeling of being cared for of being seen.”
Although Ceres has reduced the size of kitchen staff since the pandemic, in 2021 alone 600 adults and 325 youth volunteers took part in the program. Ramelli said they are still taking volunteers, particularly for the Santa Rosa location.
“We have had to limit the number of people in our kitchen to allow for social distance, but are looking for volunteers in Santa Rosa,” she said.
Currently, Ceres serves 290 clients and their families, for a total of 373 persons served four meals each week. During the pandemic, Ramelli said the social contact with the most vulnerable has been particularly important.
As for the millionth meal itself, it was delivered to a client in Windsor in a bundle of four meals in mid-March. It may have been turkey meatballs with gluten-free pasta and marinara sauce, rock cod with caper basil vinaigrette, a winter squash and rice casserole, or oven fried chicken.
Those interested in getting involved with the Ceres Community Project should visit their website, ceresproject.org, where community members can learn more about participation.