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Ceres community project

MCHS students Kailyn Shin and Rosemary Vincent-Blatter preparing ingredients in Santa Rosa Ceres kitchen.

By Jungyeon Lee, staff writer

Ceres community project has provided many students from Maria Carrillo High School, myself included, a way to earn service hours and directly help the community. The project serves organic meals and bags of groceries for people who are suffering from cancer or other conditions that affect their ability to provide for themselves. 

Because Ceres is a nonprofit organization, they don’t receive payments from their clients. Instead Ceres gets money from the things they sell, like their cookbooks, and individuals and businesses often donate money. Businesses, such as Mycopia Mushrooms and Whole Foods, can also make “in-kind donations,” which are donations of goods and services that Ceres needs. Deborah Ramelli, the director of Development and Community Affairs for Ceres said “There’s a wide variety of funding sources and that’s important for a non profit organization because it keeps you more sustainable.” She also added that if they are in need of something in particular, like a type of produce, they will call around to local farms to see if they have extra.

For adult volunteers, there are two shifts: the food preparation team and the meal delivery team. Then there are the teen shifts during the afternoon, which work around the school schedule. 

Sarah Dove, an adult volunteer, found out about Ceres by reading articles in the Press Democrat. Dove said, “I wanted to volunteer at an organization that does meaningful work in the community. Because they make and deliver healthy, medically-tailored meals for cancer and heart disease patients, I thought this would be a good fit for me.”

Zoë O’Halloran is a junior at MCHS. She joined Ceres in as a freshman, and she said that while “It’s nice to get the hours,” she goes there “because it feels really nice to help the community and because it’s a friend group.”

Junior Emerson Parker is a teen leader at Ceres. They said that, at Ceres, it’s important to make “an effort to talk to other people.” “Be willing to do stuff that you don’t necessarily want to do,” they added.

One way the volunteers connect is through “the circle,” which is a meeting between the kitchen and garden crews. Ceres also holds bimonthly teen leader meetings where volunteers discuss ways to improve the program and plan upcoming events. 

Because Ceres sees food as being an essential part of health and community bonds, teen leaders and members of the committee occasionally advocate for public policies.  For example, a member of the youth advisory committee currently sits on the staff policy workgroup, which is dedicated to advocating for public policies that support the mission of Ceres. Some examples are access to healthy food, support for youth and mental health initiatives. Policy advocates also ensured that Ceres meals could be paid for by California’s Medicaid or Medicare, which is a major milestone. Ceres is going to serve more than 200,000 meals this year in Sonoma and Marin counties but is still unable to reach all the people who need help. Through policy changes, they hope to be able to reach everyone eligible who needs a meal. 

The project started on March 29th, 2007 in the Sebastopol facility. But the vision of Ceres came a year before when Kathryn Couch, the founder of Ceres, was working as a part-time chef. While she was helping a teen learn how to cook and work her first job, she came up with the idea of getting together once a week and cooking healthy meals for a few people dealing with cancer or other serious health issues. The project was a success, and not long after, Couch founded the project with a handful of volunteers, naming it after the goddess of the harvest and grain, Ceres. Now, the nonprofit has branches in Santa Rosa, Novato and Sebastopol.

Nicole Saadeh is the Associate Chef for Santa Rosa and Sebastopol. She has a history with Ceres: Her husband had cancer in 2014 and was a client of the organization. She appreciated Ceres’ services. She started working with Ceres in 2016 when the Santa Rosa facility opened, and she said, “I was really pleased to be able to give back and be supportive of the community.” 

Also, Ceres is certified by the county to be an emergency response food operator, so when fires or pandemics, or other issues arise, it will produce food for the community at large. During COVID, Ceres couldn’t shut down operations completely because there was a huge increase in demand for meals. However, COVID changed their model: The Santa Rosa kitchen was shut down during the pandemic, and the Sebastopol branch started doing all the production. The shifts that existed before the pandemic were still in Sebastopol, but professional chefs and some of the teens with work experience were hired so the shifts could be more stable. The work days and hours were extended to accommodate the need to sanitize in between shifts as well. 

After six months the other Ceres branches reopened (though not to full capacity) with certain restrictions and requirements that are still in place. Volunteers are required to be masked and be vaccinated for COVID-19. 

Ceres provides a close-knit community of volunteers, and its services are greatly needed as we continue to recover from the impacts of the pandemic. In 15 years, the nonprofit has turned from a mere idea to a full scale operation, delivering hundreds of meals each week. Despite hitches due to COVID restrictions and scaled down operations, Ceres remains committed to supporting cancer patients and empowering its many volunteers, all while informing the broader community about the benefits of healthy meals and a sustainable approach.

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