Founder and executive director of Sebastopol-based Ceres Community Project, Cathryn Couch holds an MBA from the University of Michigan and has worked in the corporate and nonprofit worlds, including working as director of communications for The Hunger Project’s US operations from 1987 to 1991. From 1993 to 2003 she founded and ran one of the first gourmet organic home delivered meal services in the San Francisco Bay region.
“I grew up as the oldest daughter of a terrific home cook,” says Couch. “My mother was an early devotee of Julia Child—I still have my mom’s first edition copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I loved to cook when I was young and cooked in restaurants, a fraternity and a senior center when I was in college. My husband Jeff and I met in graduate school in 1979 and were married in 1981.
“I became a vegetarian when I was 16 and ate primarily a vegetarian and sometime vegan diet until my pregnancy in 1992. That led me to learning about food, nutrition, sustainability and many of the issues that Ceres now works on. I’ve also had a life-long interest in social issues and volunteering.”
She launched Ceres in 2007 as a one day a week volunteer project. It has since grown it to a $2 million budget with three program sites in the Bay Area and 11 trained communities nationally. In 2016, she was named one of 25 CNN Heroes (For a more comprehensive list of Couch’s achievements and recognitions, see our Work/Life profile).
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Pontiac, Mich., just outside of Detroit. My father was in sales, though, and I also lived in Aachen, Germany, Pittsburg and Indianapolis before my family settled down for good in Connecticut where I went to high school. My husband Jeff and I moved to San Diego in 1980 just after graduating from business school, then to Mill Valley in 1987 and finally Sebastopol in 1992.
Where do you live now?
We live on a beautiful eight-acre property near Forestville that’s been owned by the same family since 1934. Our house, which was built in 1920, was originally a one-room guest cottage but is now a three-bedroom house. The fun part is all the rooms were added on to one another and we have no hallways! We’re blessed to have lived in the same place since 1992, and our son, Hadley, was born there.
What did you do professionally beforehand?
My early career was spent in marketing and marketing research, primarily working in banking. Then in 1987, I went back to the nonprofit world, which had been my original interest when I attended business school. I was the director of communication for The Hunger Project in San Francisco. In 1993, I founded and ran an organic home delivered meal service—one of the first in the Bay Area. When I sold that business in 2003, I worked as a private chef, a chef at a retreat center, and taught horseback riding and trained dressage horses before staring Ceres.
Did you go to college?
My undergraduate major is in Women’s Studies. I received my BA from the University of Michigan in 1977—the first year that they awarded a degree in that subject. I went on to get an MBA from UofM in 1980.
What do you love to do outside of work?
I love to ride horses and am blessed to currently be leasing a 7-year-old Friesian dressage mare named Zoey, whom I ride four days per week. Jeff and I also do a lot of hiking, and I have a regular yoga practice. I love to cook, I’m an avid reader and a huge Giants and Warriors fan.
Describe one of your happiest life moments.
The birth of our son, Hadley, tops the list. Being a parent has enriched my life beyond anything I could have imagined. Hadley’s made me stretch in important ways, and taught me a lot about how to be a better human being. He’s currently in the PhD program in computer science at UC Santa Cruz. He’s also a rock climber and musician.
What’s something you’ve done that’s surprised even you?
Right after I started Ceres, I realized that I needed to sell my horse. Riding is an expensive hobby and it takes a lot of time—2 to 3 hours per day, at least 5 days per week. When I started Ceres, I was also teaching riding, but life was clearly going in a different direction. The horse that I sold was my “dream come true” horse, and I was stunned when I had the realization that I needed to sell him because Ceres was much more important.
What dream has come true for you?
For me it’s the dream I’m making a difference in the world, and to be deeply content with who I am and how I’m spending my life energy. In my small circle of the world, I’ve been blessed to touch and help a lot of people.
How many foreign countries have you visited?
I’ve visited Canada, Mexico, Spain, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, Holland and Denmark. Some of the favorite things I’ve seen: The Canadian Rockies, Banff and Lake Louise; the gregariousness of the Spanish people; and the castles along the Rhine River.
What’s something you did growing up that your parents never found out about?
I went to college in New York state when I was 16. I think the folks at the school thought 16 was a typo and so they gave me an ID that said I was 18—and 18 was the drinking age in the New York at the time. I don’t think I ever shared that with my parents.
If you won a million dollars in the lottery, how would you spend it?
I think I’d buy a small house on a quiet piece of property in Sonoma, set aside some money so I can afford to keep riding and give the rest to organizations I believe in.
What does success mean to you?
For me, success is about finding deep contentment with life and knowing you’re living consistent with your own values.
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