Sebastopol’s Ceres Community Project sees food as medicine

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It was a chilly Tuesday afternoon in Sebastopol, and while many high school students might have been decompressing after school with video games, 18-year-old Alondra Moreno was ramping up for her weekly three-hour shift in a busy commercial kitchen at the Ceres Community Project.

Some weeks she sautés veggies or shapes cashew-cardamom balls. Other weeks she folds towels and aprons. On this day, she was gearing up to prep salad.

“It doesn't matter what they have me doing. I look forward to this every week,” Moreno said, donning her chef's whites. “More than anything, the experience has taught me that community is very important - that you can't go through things alone.”

Moreno is one of about 100 teenagers who volunteer each week at Ceres' Sebastopol kitchen. Another 60 volunteer weekly at a second kitchen in Santa Rosa, working toward a two-pronged, grassroots goal. Teens from the community come to learn about cooking and eating healthy food, and the meals they make go to members of the community who are struggling with a health crisis.

Founded in 2006 by Cathryn Couch, Ceres is a pioneer in the “food as medicine” approach that now is capturing the attention of health professionals, researchers and insurers nationwide. The premise is that medical outcomes and treatment costs of chronically ill, low-income people improve when they receive daily nutritious meals.

Over the past 12 years, more than 3,000 Ceres volunteers have helped about 4,000 families, most of whom otherwise wouldn't have had healthy food, said Couch.

“Many of our clients live alone without a support system. They're too sick to shop and cook, and most of them are poor,” she said. “It's not an exaggeration to say our food has enabled them to survive.”

The agency operates on a $2 million budget, the lion's share of which comes from grants and contributions from donors that include the Ernest and Ruth Finley Foundation. Volunteers provide the staffing to keep things running.

In Sebastopol, a typical volunteer crew is composed of anywhere from 10 to 18 kids. The afternoon work session usually begins around 3:30 p.m. with a meeting called “Circle.” Here, over light snacks prepared by the kitchen staff, volunteers talk about the menu that nutritionist Amanda Newman-Crutcher has put together, and the specific health benefits of individual ingredients.

The group get-together also gives volunteers a chance to get to know each other personally, and to learn collaboratively.

From there, volunteers receive their assignments and fan out into the kitchen to get to work. Associate Chef Analise Lofaro is one of the cooks who oversee this work, coaching the teenagers through difficult preparations and providing help with certain tasks upon request.

Lofaro said she finds the coaching valuable, but she prefers to emphasize the fact that cooking is one of a multitude of skills volunteers are learning through their efforts.

“Before working here, I thought this program was just about healing foods for people going through chemo,” said Lofaro, 34. “After I arrived, I realized it is so much more, that it also has to do with farmers, youth and community, and that it gives everybody involved a sense of purpose. Those are big concepts. These are big issues. This is big stuff.”

Harvest, prep and cooking are only the first phases of the process. Once the main volunteers prepare the meals, another group of volunteers packages them, and a third group puts them in bags for delivery. Later, a final group called the “Delivery Angels” swing by to pick up the bags and deliver them to clients. All told, Ceres feeds about 80 clients in the North Bay each week, and in most cases, their families, too.

Technically speaking, the mission hasn't changed much since Couch started Ceres. What has changed: The breadth and depth of that effort, and the scale with which the organization has approached the question of treating illness with food.

Exhibit A: In 12 years, the program has blossomed from one program site to three (the third is in Marin County), and Ceres has shared the concept with 13 other communities, including one in Denmark.

Exhibit B: Ceres currently is in talks with the Whole Cities Foundation about joining the affiliate program. That nonprofit, established by Whole Foods Markets, awards grants and forms partnerships with locally led, fresh food access projects.

In the world of public health, people are taking notice, too. Debbie Mason, CEO of the Healthcare Foundation of Northern Sonoma County, said she acutely understands the need sick people have for wholesome and healthy food, and that she appreciates Ceres because the model is one that can be replicated anywhere.

“It's a brilliant solution that fills several essential needs,” she said.

Looking forward, Couch said Ceres will continue to grow. For starters, the group is looking to add another cooking day at both Sonoma County locations, bumping total output to 120,000 meals a year.

Ceres is one of six California agencies chosen to participate in a $6 million state-funded study of 1,000 low-income patients with congestive heart failure or Type 2 diabetes who receive healthy food and nutrition education. Ceres and five other agencies participating in the study will be reimbursed proportionally for the services they provide.

Researchers from Stanford and the UC San Francisco, will assess the changes in prognosis, treatment and cost of the patients' medical care.

“The big question on this issue is how do we identify those patients who need some sort of community support in addition to mealtimes, and how can we build a referral process into the mix,” Crouch said. “If we can show that investing in food for this medical population improves outcomes and actually saves money at the state level, we will go a long way toward driving the conversation forward so these interventions get paid for.”

EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this story overstated the amount of money Ceres will receive from a state-funded study of low-income patients. The state has allocated $6 million for the study. Ceres and five other agencies participating in the study will be reimbursed proportionally for the services they provide.

Sonoma Gives

Read more stories about locals giving back to the community


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