Teen chefs fill meal containers for the day's deliveries.

Filling meal containers for the day’s deliveries.

In recent years, the conversation about natural, organic, and local foods has tended to focus on flavor. Celebrity chefs and home gourmets alike know that fresh, organic foods simply taste better than those picked green and shipped across the world.

Flavor is important; after all, who wants to eat anything other than delicious meals? But before there were co-ops, there were “health food” stores, and today, a growing body of scientific evidence supports the common-sense notion that a healthy diet results in healthy bodies.

Some conditions, like obesity and diabetes, are of course directly linked to diet. Others, like cancer and heart disease, can be impacted by what we eat. We know, for example, that milk and meat from grass-fed animals contains more beneficial, even potentially cancer- and heart-disease-fighting, nutrients than from cows raised on grain. In fact, some California grocery stores have begun hosting on-site doctors who can assist shoppers in making healthy choices with their purchases.

But as with many issues, there’s a divide between the haves and the have-nots when it comes to healthy foods. While the number of food insecure households in the U.S. has declined in recent years, as of 2015, approximately one in eight families faced difficulty putting food on the table, according to the Washington, DC–based World Hunger Education Service.

A teen chef learns how to cook tempeh from a Ceres mentor.

A teen chef learns how to cook tempeh from a Ceres mentor.

One California organization has directly tackled the problem of low-income access to healthy foods. The Ceres Community Project, formed in 2007, enlists teen chefs to grow and cook nutritious meals that are delivered to low income families with a member suffering an illness such as cancer.

The program provides a number of different benefits to the communities of people involved. Perhaps the most profound is the nutritional impact for recipients with severe illness. Meals are planned with input from nutritionists to use ingredients that are known to aid in recovery—whole grains, leafy vegetables and the like. But Ceres believes that when it comes to healing, community and family support is just as important as the ingredients. For example, all household members, not only the ill person, are provided with a meal, enabling the family to break bread together.

A high-up view of the Ceres Community Garden, showing a brightly painted shed and garden plots full of fresh vegetables.

The Ceres Community Garden

“We have a duty to deliver food that is beautiful, delicious and nourishing,” says Cathryn Couch, founder and executive director. “It has to be beautiful, because when a client’s appetite is suppressed, she’s not going to take that first bite if it’s not visually appealing. It has to be delicious, or she won’t take that second or third bite. And it has to be nourishing, or she shouldn’t be eating it at all.”

As for the teen chefs, who volunteer about 3 hours a week, the benefits are a sense of empowerment, purpose and belonging. Unlike many programs, to say nothing of American culture at large, Ceres takes the approach that teens are “intelligent, responsible, capable, creative and caring.” In addition to cooking meals, for instance, they help grow food in the Ceres Community Garden, and they are given a say in the nonprofit’s governance.

A teen chef learns how to cut tomatoes from a Ceres mentor.

A teen chef learns how to cut tomatoes from a Ceres mentor.

It’s an approach that is catching on, as groups from around the country reach out to learn from and replicate Ceres’ programming in their own communities. In addition to teaching others and creating a start-up guide, the organization has created a cookbook containing their nourishing recipes.

To learn more, check out this sweet video celebrating the Ceres Community Project’s 10th anniversary. (It brought tears to our eyes.)

Organic Valley is committed to supporting the health and wellness of local communities and is happy to sponsor the Ceres Community Project for its impact on the lives of its community members.