Cathryn Promo Shot 8.2013By Cathryn Couch, Executive Director, Ceres Community Project

The link between diet and the rising tide of obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer has been proven in study after study. In fact, Centers for Disease Control has named dietary issues as the number one risk factor for our health. Yet fewer and fewer young people are growing up eating healthy fresh foods and learning to cook those foods at home.  And most of us don’t really understand the powerful role that our diet plays in our health.  A study in the United Kingdom found that less than half of Britons believed that what they ate affected their cancer risk.

How do we get young people to eat better, end malnutrition among adults who are ill, and enjoy the benefits of stronger communities that result?

Unknown-3Ceres Community Project’s Healing Meals for Healthy Communities program accomplishes these outcomes and more by modeling what a healthy food and community system looks like. Each week 140 teenagers from dozens of local schools volunteer in our organic farm  and commercial kitchen, growing food and preparing organic whole food meals that are delivered free of charge to local families dealing with serious illness. Dozens of farmers, food producers, and merchants donate to the program, and more than 350 adult volunteers serve as Client Liaisons, Delivery Angels, Mentor Chefs and Gardeners, and in dozens of other roles.

This year we expect to engage more than 350 youth in about 17,000 hours of service learning about growing, preparing and eating a fresh, locally grown and organic diet. Teens spend ½ hour of each shift in a formal education program exploring the impact of their food choices on their health, the health of their community and the health of the planet. Teens make a 3-month commitment and the average teen is involved for 10 months, with many participating for several years or longer.

Unknown-6The meals they prepare – about 70,000 this year alone – will support hundreds of local families as they navigate a health crisis. Ready-to-eat, delicious and nutrient-rich meals relieve stress and help insure that people eat even when they don’t have the energy to shop or prepare food.  Among cancer patients, who are the majority of our clients, the rate of malnutrition during treatment can be as high as 80% —  yet keeping a patient well-nourished improves treatment outcomes, reduces side effects, and speeds recovery times.  If your income is low – like most of our clients — eating well is even more challenging.

This elegant community-based approach is leading to significant dietary changes for nearly everyone involved. Preliminary results from a U.S. Department of Agriculture funded study are exciting.  Clients surveyed three months after they stop receiving meals report a 40% increase in vegetable consumption and a 33% increase in fruit consumption. Nearly 80% say they are eating less fast and processed food and less white flour products. 100% say that the meals were extremely important to their healing and 83% say that what they learned about nutrition was extremely important.  Eight-two percent report that their weight moved in a positive direction thanks to the healthy meals.Unknown

Teens are also making healthier choices. After six months in the program there is a 27% increase in the number of teens eating at least 3 servings of vegetables each day – and an increase in the variety of vegetables teens are eating. The percentage of teens who say they eat fast food either daily or frequently drops from 82% to 28%.  Teens are cooking more frequently at home, and are more likely to be preparing whole foods meals. 100% of the teens say they’re confident they can prepare a healthy meal from scratch. And teens are becoming advocates for healthy choices – there is a 50% increase in the number of teens who say they encourage friends and family to make healthier choices either daily or frequently.

Even our volunteers are improving their eating habits! A survey at the end of 2012 showed that more than 60% had made a positive change in their eating habits since they started volunteering. Results from our 2013 survey show 47% have increased vegetable consumption while 42% have decreased their consumption of sugar and 59% have decreased their consumption of fast food.

Unknown-4Eating a fresh, whole foods and organic diet is the single most powerful thing we can do to improve our health. And yet most of us don’t know this – and we don’t have the skills or the inspiration to make dietary change a reality. Ceres’ Healing Meals for Healthy Communities program places healthy fresh food in the center of the conversation about health – and at the center of building stronger connections in our communities.  Clients learn by eating that healthy food can taste great – and that they feel better when they eat this way. Teenagers learn by doing, tasting, and hearing directly from the clients they serve. And everyone engaged in the program, including volunteers, donors and the broader community, becomes more aware of the vital importance of what and how we eat while connecting to the earth and each other.

Ceres started when my phone rang in June of 2006 and a friend asked me if I could hire her daughter for the summer at the retreat center where I was a chef. And, oh by the way, my friend added, she doesn’t know how to cook. I’ll admit that I was annoyed.  Today I’m thankful my friend was persistent.  That summer her daughter Megan and I met one afternoon a week. I taught Megan how to cook and the organic, whole food meals we prepared supported three local families struggling with cancer or another health crisis.

Unknown-1Today, Ceres Community Project operates programs in Sonoma and Marin counties in California and we’re exploring expansion throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. Since 2010 we’ve trained ten communities to replicate the Healing Meals for Healthy Communities model and programs are operating in eight communities across the nation.  A free Start-up Tool Kit is available on our website at, and we offer two 4-day trainings a year at our headquarters in Sebastopol, California.

Learning by doing (or in this case eating) is a powerful tool for changing eating habits.  But Ceres Healing Meals program does so much more. By bringing together a few simple ideas, Ceres supports people struggling with a serious illness, empowers youth, forges the strong social connections that are at the heart of a healthy community and educates everyone about the vital role of a local whole foods diet.