Food that Heals and Empowers
In 2007, entrepreneur, chef and activist Cathryn Couch founded the Ceres Community Project, a non-profit organization that delivers free, nutritious, prepared meals to individuals dealing with serious illness. What’s especially unique about the organization is that it engages youth volunteers ages 14-19 in growing the ingredients and preparing the food. Cathryn has received many awards for her work including CNN Hero (2016) and California Northwest Real Hero Award (2015) and is a founding member of the Sonoma County Food System Alliance.
“I love cooking. I find it incredibly creative and just fun,” says Cathryn. Ceres shares this sense of creativity and fun with about 450 young people from 65 different schools to result in 25,000 hours of gardening, cooking and healthy eating education per year. Deep familial and community connections are often founded upon food, and this integral aspect of our society is something Cathryn has identified and capitalized on. “The act of preparing meals together for people in need touches something almost in our DNA.” She also says that many of the young people involved in the program don’t have opportunities to give back in such a rewarding way elsewhere.
Recognizing the connection between food insecurity and health is another piece of the puzzle. Ceres makes the case for nutritious food as a healthcare intervention: Well-fed people do better and feel better, ultimately using fewer healthcare services and costing state and national governments less money. Cathryn hopes the efforts of her organization will be able to incite change at the legislative level. “Food actually needs to be part of the standard of care,” she believes, and new studies in California are hoping to prove exactly that.
The Ceres Community Project works from two different directions to better its community and increase awareness around cooking and nutrition. Sick people are cared for and young people are empowered—all through delicious and nutritious food.
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m here today with Cathryn Couch, founder and executive director of the Ceres Community Project. Ceres is a really innovative program in Northern California that enlists teen chefs to grow and cook nutritious meals that are delivered to low-income families with a member suffering an illness, such as cancer. Cathryn, welcome, and I’m really looking forward to hearing more about your work.
CATHRYN COUCH: Thanks so much, Theresa—great to be here.
TM: So creative, and so wonderful to think about the youth working and helping those who are in need. What led to the founding of Ceres?
CC: So, I have a long interest in food and nutrition from my teen years forward. No formal training either in nutrition or culinary, but have always been interested, was a vegetarian for many years, started eating organic quite a number of years ago. And in 1993, soon after I had moved to Sonoma County, I actually founded and ran for 10 years a for-profit home-delivered meal service that was all organic and started off being 100 percent vegetarian, and then had been cooking at a retreat center after I sold that business.
And basically what happened to me—it’s really kind of a funny story—is I got a phone call in the summer of 2006 from my horseback riding instructor, who had decided that her daughter Megan, who was 17, needed to get a job that summer and needed to learn how to cook, and she wanted me to hire her. And of course you don’t hire someone who doesn’t know how to cook for a culinary job! And I was actually really annoyed. I was in my car when I got this call and I was really annoyed, and this mom just was not going to let go of this idea. And we started this conversation that went on for a couple of weeks, and finally one day I just said to her, “Maybe we should just get together and we’ll cook meals for one of the homeless shelters.” And she was like, “I’ll pay for the food!”
At this point I was like, I’m volunteering my time, clearly. And as soon as I said that, I clicked on a friend of mine who was providing support to a family in our town. The mom had stage 4 metastasized breast cancer and an 11- and 13-year-old. And so I went home and I called my friend Sherry and said, “Do you think this family would like some food support?” And of course the answer was yes.
And so what I ended up doing was I put together a little project for seven weeks in 2006 with that family, a single woman living alone with breast cancer, and a man who’d had a stroke and his wife had left him. And so once a week this teenager, Megan, and I would get together—and I love cooking, I find it incredibly creative and just fun—and so we cooked together, and I shared what I know about cooking, and we made these meals. And the first day, we had packed up the bags and we’re walking out of the house to put two of the bags in my car because I was going to deliver them, and the dad in this family drove up. And I had not met him either, so I introduced myself and Megan, and I was just making conversation—I started describing what was in the bags. And you could just see the relief in his whole body that somebody was helping with something.
And what we know is that in that situation, everyone in that family is terrified. And the parent who’s well is holding so much responsibility, and the responsibility, especially with children, of maintaining some semblance of normalcy. And sitting together around the dinner table with a meal that everyone can eat is one of the ways that that happens. So that moment happened, and at the same time I glanced over at Megan, and she looked like she was about six inches taller.
So that moment came and went. And literally, what happened was three weeks later I woke up at 6:30 in the morning and I basically had a download of this as a nonprofit. And the original operating instructions were: bring teens in the kitchen and cook for people who were sick. And for me, my thing was, wow, like two bangs for the buck, right? That these families would get food at a time when it’s so critically important for healing and when it tends to go to the bottom of the priority list, right? Because people are stressed, there are so many other things going on; cancer patients don’t feel like eating, on top of all that. And so there was that, and then on the other side, I’d been passionate for years about the power of cooking and the way that we take control over our wellness when we actually prepare food for ourselves, as opposed to being at the effect of a food system that’s profit-driven and really doesn’t care about us—and knowing that, because of demographic changes over the last couple of generations, that transference of that knowledge is not happening in so many families.
So my thing was, these kids are going to learn how to cook and these families are going to get meals, and that is amazing that we can do those two things together. Now we know many, many, many other benefits happen, including, for the youth, all kinds of things we can get into around leadership and compassion and understanding their value and belonging in the community, and all kinds of other things.
TM: It must be so satisfying for them to be cooking and knowing that they’re contributing this way. And you don’t think about that with teenagers—you think, oh, teenagers are self-centered. I was so inspired just learning and reading about this project, because I’m worried that the teenagers, and even the millennials, are losing that understanding of just how wonderful cooking is and just how much better your health is going to be if you cook for yourself. So I’m just curious, how many teenagers do you have in your program now?
CC: So we work with about 450 young people every year. They come from about 65 different schools, and we provide about 25,000 hours of gardening, cooking, and healthy-eating education to them. And so exactly what you’re thinking is there. When I first started Ceres I did quite a bit of public speaking—and I still do. This question doesn’t come up anymore, interestingly enough, but literally the first question that every group would ask me was: How do you recruit the kids?
And I started to think about what the assumptions are behind that question, right? Which is young people don’t care, they just want to be on their screens, they’re disaffected—all of that perception that we have about them. And what we actually found was completely the opposite. Until the last year, when we opened a second program site in Sonoma County, we virtually have done no outreach for youth and they have flocked to the program.
So then I thought, why is that? And this is what I’ve made up about it, whether they would consciously…they would say some of this, actually, consciously. But that age group, 14 to 19, the developmental work at that age is to figure out—it’s the moment when you realize that the way that your family does things is not the only that it’s done in the world. And the question is, what is my way? What is going to be my way? What are my values? The other piece is, it’s a period where young people are figuring out how they fit into the larger world. And what we know from a lot of youth statistics is depression is really high among young people. In Sonoma County, 1 in 5 young people consider suicide.
So the antidote to that is understanding your value and your belonging to the larger community. And so the way that young people figure out how they fit is by engaging. And yet as communities we’re providing very few opportunities that are really authentic for young people to move out and begin to discover their role in the larger world. That’s what we do for them. They come into a kitchen and this is real work. There are people depending on these meals, and they are given the primary responsibility for growing the food and preparing the meals for them. So I just think that there’s a need, there’s a longing for that, and there’s not many opportunities.
And then the second thing is, if you think about human history over the last 100,000 years, we’ve experienced ourselves fundamentally as family and tribe around the hearth. And the act of preparing meals together for people in need, I think, touches something almost in our DNA that, again, they don’t have many opportunities to find. And so they walked into this space where they’re seen as capable and competent, they’re given real responsibility, it’s a responsibility that benefits the larger community, and it has this deep meaning component to it—and they get to do it with their peers in an environment that’s not awkward. So I think that that’s the combination that is really unique and had us be so successful in the work that we’ve done with this age group.
TM: I’m so excited to hear this, and especially the gardening component of it. Four hundred and fifty kids—that’s a lot. And do you actually follow these kids afterwards or ask them or get exit interviews on what their experience was like?
CC: We do two different things. So what we look at is cooking and eating behavior, healthy and risky behaviors—so there’s always the thing about risky behaviors with youth, drug use and premarital sex and smoking and all that. We also add meditation practice, physical activity—you know, some of the healthy ones. And then we have a question around advocacy about healthy eating, and then there’s some kind of youth development questions that we use to look at more kind of their sense of themselves and their optimism about their future. So what we find is young people who have been in the program for at least six months increase fruit and vegetable consumption by 16 percent; they definitely increase cooking from scratch; they are more likely to be physically active and to be doing some sort of stress management practice; and they’re 50 percent more likely to be encouraging their friends and family to make healthier choices.
Now, that’s a really interesting one, I think, because obviously our program self-selects for young people who are drawn—not all of them, but it self-selects for kids who are interested in this area of work. And I think one of the things that is true is that… The other thing about that age group is there’s a natural idealism. And what we do at Ceres is, kids are working in the kitchen and garden, and then every day on every shift there’s a half hour where we take a break, they get to eat something that they’ve grown or made, and we have a whole curriculum that we do with them around nutrition, around food systems issues, values, and leadership development. And about every three months clients come in and visit and share their stories.
And so what we’re trying to do is basically create an environment where they’re empowered to connect the dots for themselves about the impact of the choices that they make—for their health, for the health of their community, and for the planet. And by connecting food choices to environmental impact, we make a connection that’s really meaningful to this age group and this generation. And so that’s part of what happens for them.
TM: Well, you know, I’m so curious, and it’s so interesting that you started talking about the curriculum. I’m assuming that once a youth comes in, that the first thing you have to teach them is some of these basic kitchen skills. Is that, like, part of the curriculum—you have people who are teaching you how to handle a knife, how to…whatever?
CC: No, not really. I mean, this is always the question. We’ve trained 12 communities around the U.S. to replicate this model, and when we bring teens here we do a four-day really intensive training with them. And the chefs always want to know, what’s the training you do with the kids before you let them in the kitchen? And there isn’t one.
So basically the really cool thing about a kitchen—think of this, think about a production kitchen that’s making seven or eight dishes over two afternoons for 100 families—is there are so many jobs that require no previous skill: peeling carrots, taking the stems out of kale, washing dishes, sweeping the floor, folding laundry. So we basically just put kids into the mix, and we pair them up with a teen leader, who’s a teen who’s been in the program for at least a year, or with one of our adult volunteer mentors, and we just put them to work, and then they learn as they go.
So we have professional chefs who are on our staff; there’s always a staff member present for every shift. And so when a young person is set up for a job, someone is demonstrating them how to hold a knife safely, how to peel a carrot—whatever that job is. And then they just go to work and they practice and they figure it out. And one of our rules for the chefs that we hire is: you have to understand that there’s more than one way to cut an onion.
TM: (Laughing) I think that would be hard for some chefs!
CC: Yes! Our environment is all about empowerment, respect, kindness, and realizing there’s many ways to get the job done, and helping young people find the way that’s right for them. So it’s very different from a lot of the experience that many chefs have had in their careers.
TM: That’s fun, and of course that would be the best way, on-the-job training—that’s probably going to be a lot more fun. And I bet it’s a lot of fun just for them to be together doing something like this, not to mention the satisfaction of actually cranking out some meals. And you were saying that now 12 communities have picked this up across the United States, is that right?
CC: Yes, this started actually back in 2009 when we were only a couple of years old. And at the end of 2009 we published a cookbook called Nourishing Connections: The Healing Power of Food and Community, and we did that for two reasons. We know that even if we were to get five times bigger than we are currently, we’re never going to serve everyone who’s ill who needs healthy food, and the cookbook was a way to provide resources to the community so that someone’s friend or family could cook for them and understand how to do that well. And then the second piece was so many of our clients were saying to us, “Wow, this food is really good and I feel so much better when I eat this way, and I don’t know how to cook like this.” And so for those two reasons we published the cookbook, and there’s a second edition out now of it. And many of our friends here in Sonoma County began sending the cookbook around to their friends all over the country.
So we get a couple dozen calls a year from people who are interested in replicating our work. And often it doesn’t go anywhere because it’s a lot of work to bring something into existence. But twelve teens have come and gone through our training, and all of those programs have gotten off the ground to some extent. Some are very robust and some are still pretty small. But the work is happening at Nashville; in Geneva, Illinois, outside of Chicago; in Syracuse; outside of Hartford; Eugene, Oregon; Santa Cruz, California; and a number of other places as well.
TM: If you’re just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m here today with Cathryn Couch, founder and executive director of Ceres Community Project in Northern California. Cathryn and I are talking about youth in the kitchen, feeding folks who have illnesses. I also understand that there’s a real connection with low-income communities. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
CC: Well, we look—you know, like every community-based organization, we have limited resources, and the question is always present: How do we have the biggest impact with the resources that we have? And so for us, that’s been a focus on working with community clinics and other health providers that are serving low-income people. Because we know that a high proportion of people, for example, on Medi-Cal are likely food insecure, and there’s a connection between food insecurity and malnutrition and health and health outcomes. So when people have poor-quality food—it kind of sounds silly to say this, but when people don’t have enough food or they have poor-quality food, their health is worse and they have less ability to recover from illness. And for cancer, for example, which is about 80 percent of our current client population, up to 80 percent of cancer patients end up malnourished; as a result they have worse side effects, they have longer recovery times, they have worse outcomes, and they have higher recurrence rates.
And so we want to focus our meal delivery program on those clients for whom the food that we can provide can make the biggest difference for them, and who have the least options in terms of their ability to feed themselves well during a serious illness. So about 70 percent of our clients are living at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. That translates to about $32,000 a year for two people, about $16,000 a year for one person, so very, very low income. And in addition to that, now they’ve got a serious illness, they may not be able to work, they may have medical bills that aren’t covered by their insurance—all of those things can happen.
TM: Cathryn, what kind of outreach do you do so that those who are in need know who you are and how to contact you?
CC: At this point, 10 years in, we have very good relationships with all of the health providers in the two counties that we work with, and a special focus on what are called the federally qualified health centers, or community clinics, which primarily serve un- and underinsured populations.
So Sonoma County and Marin County are both not hugely diverse, but we do have about 30 percent of our population which is Hispanic, and again, many farm worker families. And so we work directly with a group called the Latino Service Providers Network and also with a number of organizations that specially serve the Hispanic population so that we can make sure that we’re reaching that group. One of our three client team members is bilingual, bicultural-bilingual, so everything is in Spanish and we make all that available to that population.
TM: That makes perfect sense in California, for sure. Well you know, for those listeners out there who are interested in this kind of community project and are interested in starting something like the Ceres Community Project, I know that you have a free startup toolkit, that you do a four-day training, and so on. How would those listeners out there who are really interested—I know that you have a great website, Ceres Community Project?
CC: Yes, CeresProject.org, C-E-R-E-S Project.org. You can look at some of the other projects around the country. You can download this free 30-page startup toolkit that we have that gives you a good overview of what you need to put in place to be successful. And then we work with the group to get them ready to come for the training. So basically we want a team to come for the training with us when they’ve figured out quite a bit and they’ve got a solid core team together, because we don’t want to do the training and then have them go home and it takes a year to get off the ground. We want them to be pretty close to launching when they come here and then be able to launch within three months after the training. And we’ll work with them to get them ready for that.
TM: What an amazing, what I would call, dimension of all that you’re doing to not only have, in running this program and having youth come in and identifying those in need, but then also running a garden, distributing—distribution probably has its own kind of difficulties. And then on top of it, training and promoting it throughout the whole land. I can see how complex it is.
CC: One of the things I’d love to talk a little about is this whole concept of food as medicine, which is really taking off around the country, and some of the leadership role that we’re playing with our colleagues in this area in terms of actually making the case for food as a healthcare intervention. Most people are aware of Meals on Wheels programs, but there’s another type of food delivery program that exists in most of the major cities around the country, and those are food and nutrition providers that first came into being in the late 1980s and early ’90s during the AIDS epidemic. So one is Project Open Hand in San Francisco; there’s God’s Love [We Deliver] in New York City; there’s Food and Friends in Washington, D.C. And what they discovered is when the people are well nourished they have lower transmission levels, so they’re less likely to transmit the AIDS virus if they are well nourished. And as the drugs evolved for AIDS/HIV, people needed to eat in order to be able to have the drugs work. And so because of that, in 1990, when the federal government passed the Ryan White CARE Act, they included reimbursement for home-delivered meals for people with AIDS/HIV as part of that funding.
So this is the only place in the federal government where medical insurance is actually reimbursing agencies like Ceres for providing meals to a population with illness. And there’s a growing body of research now that when we keep people well fed, not only do they feel better and do better, but they actually use less health-care services, so they cost less money for health care. So, most of these agencies now are serving a lot of different illnesses. And so we have been working, as a national coalition and here in California, to build up the research base and begin to kind of look at the policy pieces around how could we have meals reimbursed.
And what just happened in California a couple of months ago is I worked with one of our state senators and put together a statewide coalition, and California has now allocated $6 million over three years to do a seven-county pilot project to look at the benefit of medically tailored meals for low-income people on Medi-Cal, and to basically measure the impact in terms of improving people’s health but, just as importantly, how much do people health-care costs go down. And this is really important, obviously, for two reasons. Those of us who know that healthy food makes a difference, this is kind of a no-brainer conversation, but until we can prove that there’s actually a dollar benefit of making sure that people have good food, we aren’t going to be able to bring about policy change, right?
So, for us as an organization, our mission is about reconnecting food and health. So for us, this is about changing the conversation, especially in health care and among health insurers, to understand that food actually needs to be part of the standard of care. It’s really what’s called, in the Affordable Care Act, an essential health benefit that needs to be reimbursed. And then the other big exciting thing is if we can make the policy change happen, then organizations like Ceres have a funding stream that’s going to allow us to serve many more people at a point when healthy food is really critical for them.
TM: You know, this is so needed right now. And some of the things you’re saying, I’m like shaking my head and saying, well, this is all common sense! But what would you say is the thing that gives you the most charge, I guess, in this program, that really gives you your own inspiration to keep going?
CC: Thirty percent of the kids that we work with stay in the program for one to four years, so we’re at the core of this amazing blossoming that happens for them, and really coming into their power and their confidence, and seeing their place in the world in a new way, which is just incredibly rewarding. In the past couple weeks I’ve had three different conversations with youth who have been out of the program for two to three years, and one of them is studying traditional plant medicine in Africa this summer; one of them is in D.C., planning probably a career in lobbying. And just seeing who they’re becoming is really amazing.
But I think the other piece for me is with this state pilot in California, the piece around making policy change. If we are successful with this study and we can show 5, 10, 15 percent drop in people’s health-care costs when they’re fed, and we can change policy in California and beyond, we’re talking about improving healthy food access for literally millions of people at a time when they most need it. And that’s pretty darn exciting.
TM: And those of you who just want more information about Ceres, it’s CeresProject, C-E-R-E-S Project.org. Cathryn, what a delight to speak with you and feel so inspired by your work.
CC: Thanks so much, Theresa. It was a pleasure talking with you.
TM: You too.
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