Founder and executive director of Ceres Community Project.

Cathryn Couch is the founder and executive director of the Ceres Community Project, a nonprofit that provides free nutritious meals to those facing debilitating illness while training teens to cook—and eat—well. We recently checked in with Cathryn to see how the program is flourishing.

The Ceres Community Project launched seven years ago with the aim of involving teens in the work of providing whole-food-based, organic nourishing meals to those struggling with severe illness. How, if at all, has that mission evolved?

From a “meal program” where youth made the meals, we are now actively engaged in at least these five key program areas:

• Food as Medicine. Focused primarily on low-income people struggling with a serious health challenge. We are the only program that we are aware of in the country delivering free organic meals to people with illness.

• Youth Empowerment! Ceres now operates a comprehensive youth program in a food production garden with three commercial kitchens in Marin and Sonoma counties. Through serving as volunteer gardeners and chefs, youth learn to grow, prepare, and eat healthy organic whole foods, understand how their food choices impact their lives, their community and the planet, and develop the skills and leadership they need to be successful at work and in life.

• Community Nutrition Education. Through our Nourishing Connections Cookbook, Healing Foods Basics class, and Nutrition for Wellness program, Ceres is shifting the conversation about the vital role that fresh, organic, and whole food makes in our health.

• Strengthening Social Connections. Surprisingly, the quality of our social connections makes an even bigger difference for our health than what we eat. The experience of “belonging” is essential for people to be well.

• National Replication. Ceres has helped eight communities across the country replicate our model and we are in conversation with nearly a dozen more.

Numbers. Ceres began with three client families and one teen chef in addition to you. Where is Ceres today in terms of clients and volunteers? What percentage is teenaged, what adult?

In 2014, Ceres will deliver about 85,000 meals to more than 550 clients and their families in Marin and Sonoma counties. The meals will be prepared by 450 youth from 60-plus schools during 18,000 hours of service learning. We also have nearly 500 adult volunteers who will donate 25,000 hours of service and dozens of community partners who will donate nearly $100,000 worth of food.

One of the founding “policies” of Ceres was the belief in the goodness of the universe and karmic fulfillment. It seems nearly magical how the project gets what it needs when it needs it. How have you seen that continue to happen in recent years?

There are so many examples of this and, yes, it continues to happen. One great example is how we came to start the Ceres Community Garden at O’Reilly Media in Sebastopol. Sara McCamant, a long-time food gardener and friend of mine, approached me in the late summer of 2011. She was leaving a job and told me that she really wanted to grow food for Ceres. Right around the same time, O’Reilly called because they were interested in someone putting a community garden on their property. Then I got a call from Diana Rich at Sebastopol Community Center who had a donor interested in funding some sort of physical activity program for youth. Gardening came up in that conversation. In the span of three weeks we suddenly had land, a farmer, and a donor. The universe had decided that it was time for the Ceres garden, something we had talked about for several years.

If you had your druthers, the Ceres Community Project would be . . .

Fifty percent funded by an endowment! I can’t resist! I wouldn’t want it 100 percent funded because I’ve always believed that one important way people can be involved is to write a check, and I wouldn’t want to lose that opportunity. I also love talking to donors about our work and growing the family of individuals, companies, and foundations that partner with us each and every day to make people, communities, and the planet healthier and more whole.

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