Innovative Meal Delivery Program Heals More Than Just Bodies
Cathryn Couch traces the start of her non-profit, the Ceres Community Project, to one irritating phone call. She was living in Sonoma County in 2006 and working as a chef at a retreat center, when an acquaintance called, asking Couch to hire her daughter. The catch? The teen couldn’t cook.
The mother was insistent, despite her daughter’s lack of skills, so Couch suggested that they cook meals together and take them to the homeless shelter. Then she remembered a family whose mother had Stage 4 breast cancer. After three weeks of cooking for that family and two others with a similar need, Couch woke up one morning with the thought: Why not train teens to cook for families affected by serious illness? “When people are sick,” says Couch, “they’re thrown into this incredibly stressful situation, and preparing meals goes out the window, even though that’s when they need healthy food the most.”
Seven months later, Couch launched Ceres with a small group of teen volunteers cooking out of a church kitchen one afternoon a week. Since then, with the help of RSF Social Finance, Ceres has expanded to serve more than 90,000 meals this year alone to seriously ill people in Sonoma and Marin counties.
Though Couch’s business model is straightforward—teaching teens to cook for seriously ill people and their families—her hope is to change the entire food system, from how food is grown and prepared to an understanding of its role in wellness. “The way we feed ourselves is fundamental to our well-being and connectedness to the world,” she says.
The organization’s premise is that food has healing power. Many clients come to Ceres at the suggestion of a doctor, friend, or former client. After an initial screening, they receive up to 24 weeks of organic, whole-food meals delivered to their door, usually free. Because many of the families are low income (82 percent have household incomes below $45,000), it’s often the first time they’ve eaten a whole-foods diet. This is an opportunity, says Couch, to change eating patterns for life. She says clients often tell Ceres, “I thought I was eating healthy, having Cheerios and skim milk for breakfast, but now I’m having a kale smoothie.”
The teens also get healthier. “Ceres lets kids know that they’re a vital part of the community and that they matter,” says Ted Levinson, senior director of lending at RSF Social Finance. They also learn to eat more fruits and vegetables and prepare homemade foods. “If we don’t know how to prepare our own food,” says Couch, “we’re really pawns in a food system that, for the most part, doesn’t have our best interests at heart.”
Ceres’ greatest challenge has been that there are more ailing bodies in Sonoma County alone than one small non-profit can properly nourish. Couch has doggedly pursued funding, and today has a funding base that includes thousands of individual donors and dozens of foundation and corporate partners, many in the organic food industry. Whole Foods Market provides cash support and in-kind food donations, and also sells 12 Ceres-branded salads in their Northern California stores. One dollar from each pint goes to the non-profit.
But by 2010, Ceres (which is named after the Roman goddess of agriculture) still hadn’t found a permanent home. It had 12 staff members, no office space, and was using a catering kitchen available only two days a week. So when the town of Sebastopol offered Couch a building late that summer, she jumped—but it was a run-down, 3,200-square-foot modular facility badly in need of renovation.
Couch approached RSF Social Finance in early 2011 with a financing request that required some creativity: the property was zoned for community use and would be difficult to resell if Ceres were to default. RSF asked Couch to assemble a small guarantee community to support the loan. She did so, and in 2012, RSF lent her $340,000, enabling Ceres to purchase the building and pay back a donor who had contributed funds for an extensive kitchen remodel.
“It was kind of a no-brainer to have RSF come on as our lender,” says Couch. “I’ve always been interested in developing collaborative relationships with organizations that share our values.”
The new building provided not only a commercial kitchen but also a place to hold meetings and training sessions. Couch has already helped nine communities—including Syracuse, New York, and Nashville—launch similar programs. Ceres’ affiliation with RSF has also helped Couch connect with like-minded thinkers as she tries to influence healthcare policy. She’s currently working with several Sonoma County hospitals to design a pilot program to measure the effects of Ceres meals on reducing readmission rates. “It costs Ceres $476 to provide eight weeks of meals to someone, but one readmission costs the hospital $6,000,” says Couch.
As a result of RSF’s investment, Ceres has grown rapidly. Its staff increased from 12 to 23 people and it now has two locations in Sonoma and one in Marin. The organization has gone from feeding 28 families in 2007 to feeding 513 in 2014, and, during the same period, from 21 teen volunteers annually to 410. Estimates for 2015 are serving 640 families and 475 teen volunteers.
The organization is eyeing two possible new branches, including one at a soon-to-open Sonoma County facility for kids coming out of foster care, and another at a site in Oakland. Ceres also continues to collaborate with communities around the country. “We look at our work as using a meal delivery program to create healthier food systems, community systems, and healthcare systems,” says Couch. “We want to bring all the pieces together because, really, it’s all one.”
For more information about Ceres, go to: http://www.ceresproject.org/