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January 2017 People

Author: Elaine B. Holtz.
January, 2017 Issue

Cathryn Couch, executive director of Ceres Community Project, is an entrepreneur, chef and activist who’s committed to creating healthy, just and sustainable communities.

In 2006, she received a call from a friend who wanted Couch to teach her teenage daughter how to cook. Couch was aware that many young people were growing up without learning how to prepare healthy food. In response, she developed a seven-week project where she and the teen cooked for three families who were experiencing health challenges. With a decade of experience running one of the first gourmet organic and vegetarian home delivery meal services, Couch understood how nutritional foods could help the sick—and how difficult it could be for them to get it. “When people get sick, life becomes complicated, and cooking and eating healthy foods often becomes a challenge,” she says. These experiences motivated her to begin the Ceres Community Project in 2007.

The program was named after Ceres, the goddess of agriculture and the hearth. The mission of the program is to create health for people, communities and the planet through love, healing food and empowering the next generation.

The project grew from a one day per week effort in a local church kitchen to now operating at three program sites in Sonoma and Marin counties, with more than 450 youth each year helping create almost 100,000 meals. “Youth is our future, and if we connect them to the power of community service, we help them discover their capacity for leadership and help create a much healthier community,” says Couch.

Tatiana Clemens, 16, a student at Pivot North Bay, an online charter school, needed community services hours and decided to volunteer at Ceres. In her third month, she’s already learned a lot about cooking and nutrition. “I love working in a team, and I’m becoming more interested in food preparation and nutrition and making all kinds of salads,” she says.

Vincent McConkie, 18, an Analy High School graduate, was encouraged by his father in July 2016 to become involved in the program. “Prior to volunteering with Ceres, I had no idea of the concept, ‘You are what you eat.’ Along with learning new skills, I’m eating more vegetables and living a healthier lifestyle.”

In February 2016, Ceres launched a new Santa Rosa program site at the Social Advocates for Youth (SAY) Finley Dream Center. Youth who are part of the SAY program and others from the surrounding community learn to cook and eat healthy food, along with gaining skills that are important for employment, such as working with a team and taking responsibility. They also see how their effort helps the community.

In 2012, Couch received a Silver Jefferson Award for Public Service, one of only five awarded in the San Francisco Bay region, was a national finalist for The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Community Health Leaders Award and was named one of 14 Innovative Nonprofit Leaders in Sonoma County. In 2013, she received the Leader in Sustainability Award from the Leadership Institute for Ecology and the Economy and in 2015, was a finalist for the James Irvine Leadership Award and was named the North Bay Red Cross Humanitarian Hero.

In September 2016, Ceres became one of the 25 CNN Heroes, an annual program created by CNN to honor individuals who make extraordinary contributions to humanitarian aid and make a difference in their communities. For Couch, the nomination was exciting, “I was stunned and honored when I heard the news and couldn’t help but think of all the people it took to accomplish what we have. This is truly an award for all of them.”

As you watch everyone working, preparing, packing and getting the meals ready to be delivered, one recognizes it takes an especially organized and dedicated group of people to accomplish such a feat. To date, Ceres has delivered nearly 500,000 meals, trained 2,300 teen chefs, fed 3,300 families and trained 11 other communities to launch programs based on their model.


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