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Cathryn Couch looks happy in the kitchen, even though it’s not her personal kitchen.

Ducking in and out of the big walk-in cooler at the headquarters of her meal-delivery service in Sebastopol, she brandishes packages of Alaskan cod and organically raised chicken, ready to heat and serve.

There are other organizations that take food to the needy, but these meals are meant for a very specific audience — those struck by cancer or other serious illness.

“When someone gets sick, the idea of quality food goes out the window,” said Couch, founder and executive director of the Ceres Community Project.

“The last thing a sick person wants to think about is food,” she said. “And in families, when one parent is ill, the other parent is too busy trying to hold everything together to think about shopping or cooking meals.”

Families fighting serious illness need help putting wholesome meals on the table, and at the same time, teenagers need to learn about choosing and making healthy food, she said.

The Ceres Community Project, a nonprofit service founded by Couch in 2007, combines support for stricken patients with training and experience for up to 450 young volunteers, ages 14 to 19.

“In the process of making these meals, the teenagers learn about healthy eating,” Couch said. “We’re also gearing them up to make a life-saving contribution to somebody else.”

The program’s Sebastopol center includes not only a full, restaurant-worthy kitchen, but also maintains an organic garden to grow its own vegetables.

Ceres uses hundreds of adult volunteer drivers, dubbed “delivery angels,” to take the food to the program’s clients, and “client liaison” volunteers communicate weekly with food recipients to make sure their needs are met.

Since its inception, Ceres has opened additional centers in Sonoma Valley and San Rafael, and will deliver an estimated 88,000 meals this year to about 500 clients in Sonoma and Marin counties.

With an annual operating budget of $1.4 million, Ceres employs a staff of four full-time employees and 16 part-time employees, relying on grants, donors and volunteers for support.

Couch, 58, was born in Pontiac, Mich., and grew up near Simsbury, Conn. She holds two degrees from the University of Michigan, a 1977 bachelor’s degree in women’s studies, and a 1980 master’s degree in business administration.

She spent her early career as a marketing and communications specialist, for companies including San Diego Trust and Savings. She also worked on the strategic planning staff at General Motors in Detroit.

Couch and her husband of 33 years, Jeff Black, settled in Sonoma County in the early 1990s. They have a son, Hadley Black, 22, a student at UC Santa Cruz.

The time Couch spent in the business world has served Ceres well, said Jana Hill, a health program manager for the Sonoma County Department of Health Services.

“Cathryn’s business acuity is spot-on. She has the ability to think strategically and keep all of the pieces in place,” Hill said.

As a founding member of Sonoma County Food System Alliance, a consortium of programs and agencies planning for the county’s future food needs, Couch has extended her influence and responsibilities far beyond Ceres itself.

“Beyond her role at Ceres, Cathryn is interested in how to create a community-wide plan,” Hill said. “She has been really involved in the local food movement, supporting local farmers, and working on how to create an economy that produces healthy food and gets that food to people in need.”

Soft-spoken and understated, but cordial and direct, Couch offers a simple reason for taking a broader countywide role.

“I’ve always been inclined to be politically active, and to say ‘yes’ to people,” she said.

You can reach staff writer Dan Taylor at 521-5243 or dan.taylor@pressdemocrat.com.