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Steven Toth of Sebastopol quit eating red meat and switched to mostly fish and organic vegetables after his diagnosis with prostate cancer five months ago.

The dietary breakthrough was inspired, he said, by food from the Ceres Community Project, which has largely sustained him as he battles the spreading cancer.

“I’m keeping up with my 7-year-old son; I’m feeling good,” said Toth, 67.

The food, prepared at a Ceres kitchen in Sebastopol, is “cooked to perfection,” he said. “It’s stuff you would pay an arm and a leg for at Whole Foods.”

Now the work by Ceres, a nonprofit named after the Roman goddess of agriculture, is the touchstone for an unprecedented $6 million healthy food pilot project for low-income Californians suffering from chronic disease.

The three-year project, scheduled to start in 2018, will assess the premise that good nutrition improves the lives of people with cancer, heart disease, diabetes and other serious illnesses and cuts the cost of their taxpayer-funded medical care.

Cathryn Couch, the founder and executive director of Ceres, said the state’s $6 million investment will pay off in a savings of $13.8 million for Medi-Cal, the health care system that covers about one-third of California’s population.

Couch, who has a master’s degree in business, said her estimated $7.8 million net benefit is conservative, based on a study of a Philadelphia nutrition program called Manna that cut health care expenses by 28 to 32 percent.

The savings comes from reduced trips to hospital emergency rooms, shorter hospital stays and fewer hospital readmissions, among other factors.

Going a step further, Couch hopes the California pilot project — directed by the state Department of Health Care Services — will establish that home-delivered meals should be a “standard of care” prescribed by physicians for patients with serious diseases and covered by both Medicaid — operated through Medi-Cal in California — and private insurance nationwide.

“What we know is poor food is making us sick and good food can make us better,” Couch said.

Sixty percent of deaths in the United States, from heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and other frequent killers, have poor diet as an underlying cause, she said.

State Sen. Mike McGuire, an advocate for Ceres since his tenure as a Sonoma County supervisor, collaborated with Couch in proposing the pilot project and wrangling the funding through the Legislature.

A bill that includes the $6 million is awaiting Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature.

“It’s amazing to see the power of healthy, nutritious food,” McGuire said, noting that Ceres has done “life-changing work in the North Bay for over a decade.”

The pilot project will “take a successful homegrown program and scale it to benefit thousands of people,” he said.

It will serve about 2,500 Medi-Cal patients with heart disease, cancer, diabetes, kidney and lung disease from eight counties, including Sonoma and Marin, served by Ceres and four similar nonprofits in San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles and San Diego.

Founded in 2007, Ceres has prepared and delivered nearly 550,000 meals to about 3,300 households. The ready-to-eat meals — now about 100,000 annually, prepared in kitchens in Sebastopol, Santa Rosa and San Rafael — feed 150 families in nearly every town in Sonoma and Marin counties. About 70 percent of the agency’s clients are below 200 percent of the federal poverty level, which is $32,000 for two people.

Each weekly delivery includes four entrees — poultry, fish and vegetarian — per person along with side dishes and pints of soup, salad and dessert. Clients pay for Ceres’ services on a sliding scale based on income, ranging from free (for more than half of clients) to $85 a week.

Ninety-five percent of the ingredients are organic and 70 percent of it is produced locally, Couch said. Ceres, which operates on a $1.9 million annual budget that includes no government funding, spends about $200,000 a year on food and gets about $100,000 in donations from local farms as well as Whole Foods and Oliver’s Markets.

There are 31 paid staffers, augmented by a cadre of more than 1,000 volunteers — 450 teenagers and 580 adults — who tend the 1-acre Ceres Project Garden in Sebastopol, prepare and deliver food and check weekly with clients.

Volunteers are committed to their efforts.

Ina Perlman of Sebastopol, one of about 50 adult “delivery angels,” takes food to four to six clients every Wednesday.

“It’s a privilege and a gift to me to be able to do it,” she said. “I look forward to seeing how they’re doing.”

Perlman said she had planned to volunteer at Ceres as soon as she retired from her career as a special education program administrator. Each food package comes with a bouquet of flowers grown in the Ceres garden and human contact, she said.

“It’s more than nutrition. It’s a bridge, a support for their battles (with disease),” Perlman said at the Ceres office and kitchen next to the Sebastopol Fire Department.

Clients are typically served for about 14 weeks, and 80 percent have cancer and need a nutritional boost to stave off the impact of chemotherapy, Couch said.

They often send Ceres notes of appreciation: “I can feel the love in my food,” she said.

Jenna Brickman, 19, is a team leader in the Sebastopol kitchen, a 1,000-square-foot work space with spotless reddish tile and gleaming stainless steel fixtures.

An art student at Santa Rosa Junior College, she’s been volunteering one day a week in the kitchen for nearly five years and is considering a career as a chef or baker.

“I really enjoy helping the community,” Brickman said. Friends she’s made with other teen volunteers are “some of the best friends I’ve had in my life.”

Also on a personal note, Brickman said she altered her diet since volunteering at Ceres, eating more fruit and vegetables.

A short distance from the kitchen, teens tend the garden on a sunny patch of ground behind O’Reilly Media on Gravenstein Highway.

The garden, highlighted by bright flowers, produces about 5 tons of vegetables worth about $12,000 a year, according to Sara McCamant, the garden and youth program manager.

Team leader Steven Garcia, 16, has been working there for almost three years and also volunteers at the kitchen. “I like the people here, the environment we’ve built here,” he said.

Cards, gifts and flowers go to clients along with the nutritious fare.

“It’s not just about bringing good food to these people,” Garcia said. “It’s about bringing love. They need the support we give them.”

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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