The Ceres Community Project is a Sebastopol-based nonprofit that teaches teenagers how to cook healthy, immune-boosting meals and then delivers those meals to seriously ill clients throughout the north bay. As of March, the group was delivering about 1,600 meals weekly to 184 clients and their families with the help of hundreds of youth and adult volunteers.
Then came the COVID-19 pandemic, which upended Ceres’ operations and increased demand for its home-delivered meal services three-fold. By May, it was serving over 4,500 meals a week to 360 clients.
From volunteer to paid staff
The changes required by the pandemic meant Ceres had to overhaul its operations almost overnight. As demand for Ceres’ services began to skyrocket, many of their volunteers decided they needed to stay home to protect either their own health or that of the people they lived with.
So on March 30, the group pivoted, moving temporarily to an all-paid staff model. They hired 18 people, 10 of whom had come up through Ceres’ teen leader program. The young adults are handling all packaging and bagging of meals on two all-day shifts, as well as assisting with the thousands of cups of vegetable preparation needed weekly.
New partners mean no more waiting list
Ceres has always had a waiting list for services. There are simply more sick people needing help than the organization has been able to serve.
But that organization found that the new clients who were calling needed services immediately. Most have multiple health challenges, are over 65 and are living alone with less than $18,000 a year of income. These medically fragile clients are the most at risk from COVID-19.
“We were getting dozens of calls each week, including referrals from community health centers. Every story was heart-breaking. All of them needed prepared meals that were tailored to their health condition. We just knew we had to step up,” said Ceres founder and CEO Cathryn Couch.
Scrapping their traditional “cook to order” model, the group vowed to have no wait list and get people meals within a few days. But that required reaching out to a local restaurant, a grocery store, a caterer and another local nonprofit for help.
Ceres is now purchasing custom-designed grocery bags from the Forestville-based nonprofit Food for Thought for clients who screen positive for food insecurity and need more than the group’s seven prepared meals each week.
Then, two weeks ago, when Ceres was concerned that weekly demand was outstripping what they could produce, Oliver’s Market’s team at Stony Point stepped in and prepared 600 dinners to ensure no one would go without.
Ceres has also created ongoing agreements with Forestville’s Backyard Restaurant and Santa Rosa’s Park Avenue Catering. The organization will be purchasing meals from both businesses, which will prepare Ceres’ recipes using organic ingredients.
“Thank you to Ceres and all of its supporters for helping the community to recover one more time,” said The Backyard’s chef and restaurant co-owner Daniel Kedan. “It is an honor to be part of the Ceres family helping to feed and nourish this community. We are so grateful for the opportunity to work collaboratively towards the well-being of Sonoma County.”
Ceres Communication Director Deborah Ramelli said, “We’re excited about this because it allows us to continue to say yes to the people who are calling.”
Some things haven’t changed
Ceres isn’t attempting to feed everyone who needs food. It’s still bound by its original mission, which is to provide food for those with medical needs.
“That hasn’t changed. Now we’re just accepting people with a broader range of diagnoses,” Ramelli said. ”So, in the past we've been focused on people with acute illnesses that limit their ability to shop and cook for themselves. Right now, we will serve clients with certain chronic illnesses as well, like diabetes, chronic kidney disease and things like that.”
Ramelli also said that the organization’s commitment to using organic ingredients hasn’t changed.
But what to do with all their volunteers?
Even though Ceres has moved to working with a paid staff, it didn’t want to lose track of its devoted volunteers.
“We remain committed to a big part of our work, which is youth engagement, and that has been curtailed a little bit right now because we can't have any volunteers engaged in the kitchen, but we've looked for ways to engage volunteers virtually,” Ramelli said.
“We’ve just launched a Caring Calls program, similar to what some other nonprofits are doing, where our volunteers, either teen or adult, can reach out to clients who have requested the service,” she continued. “They call them up to check in and have a friendly conversation. Many of our clients are living alone, they're isolated and of course, it's not just physical health that's at risk but also mental health for people who are going through a really stressful time.”
Looking to the future
Couch said these changes that Ceres has been forced to make because of the pandemic may have long-term impact on the organization.
“It’s likely that the clients we serve will need to shelter at home at least through this year and perhaps into next spring,” Couch said. “While we hope to welcome back our youth and adult volunteers by early July, we expect the need for our services to remain far above pre-pandemic levels for the foreseeable future.”