Couch was asked to teach her friend's teenage daughter how to cook. So she turned the culinary lessons into a unique summer project: preparing healthy meals for three families dealing with a serious health crisis.
In one of them, a mother of two had stage 4 breast cancer.
"In that situation, everyone is terrified and the parent who is well has this enormous burden of caregiving and working to support the family," Couch said. "I realized that the food was a vehicle to help relieve some of that stress."
Couch has since expanded the idea into her nonprofit, the Ceres Community Project, which has nourished the bodies and souls of thousands of low-income people facing cancer and other serious illness in northern California.
At the heart of the work are local teens. They volunteer after school in four commercial kitchens—in Sonoma, Marin and Alameda counties—preparing 100% organic meals for clients and their families.
The organization also has a leadership training and gardening program, where teens raise about 5,000 pounds of food every year.
"Youth are our future," Couch said. "If we give them the skills to make healthy choices for themselves and connect them to the power of community service, we're shaping a healthier future for our communities and for them personally."
Since 2007, the Ceres Community Project has trained more than 2,000 young volunteers and delivered more than 450,000 healthy meals to sick residents.
CNN's Marissa Calhoun spoke with Couch about her work. Below is an edited version of their conversation.
CNN: Cancer patients need all kinds of support. Why did you choose to focus on food?
Couch: One of the things that happens when people get sick is that there's all kinds of appointments they have to go to. Their life becomes very complicated. And with cancer, there's also really significant impacts on people's appetite.
So we focus on feeding them because we know that up to 80% of cancer patients end up being malnourished—and if they're malnourished, they have worse side effects, they have worse treatment outcomes and they have longer recovery times.
Food is really critical for cancer, but also for most illnesses. And yet, it tends to drop to the bottom of the priority list. By providing healthy, organic meals, we're really making a difference in people's lives.
We provide food to the whole family because we know that helps relieve the most stress, and also because everybody then learns about eating healthy food and gets excited about that.
CNN: Why is it important to you to have youth take the lead in the program?
Couch: I think that the teenage years are the most challenging, and I have an enormous amount of compassion for who young people are. I think we completely undervalue them in our society. I've been stunned to see who they blossom into through our program. But also it's been amazing to observe how hungry they are for an opportunity to make a difference.
We jokingly say youth come to Ceres for all kinds of reasons: They have to do community service hours. Their parents think it's a good idea for them. Their friend is working there. But no matter why they come, we find that they choose to stay on their own.
The truth is, youth have the same deep longing that we all do—to be valued and to belong to their communities.
CNN: Aside from gaining cooking skills, how have you seen the youth benefit from this experience?
Couch: One of the most important things that happens for young people in the program is that clients come to visit, and they get to really feel the impact that they're making. It's very different to see a name on a container and to know abstractly that you're cooking for someone in need. But when you're sitting across from that person and you hear their story and you hear everything they're struggling with, and then they thank you personally for being there and for making this happen for them—it really shifts how you see yourself. That's the transformation that every young person in our program has an opportunity to go through.
Want to get involved? Check out the Ceres Community Project website
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