Ceres Community Project rises to the new challenge of the omicron surge

By Elsa Cavazos, Staff Writer, SoCoNews, February 25, 2022

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Ceres Community Project continues to help during COVID-19 in 2022. Volunteers are needed at all times, though especially on the heels of the omicron surge.

Most teenagers are looking to relax after school or maybe work on extracurriculars. But, at Ceres Community Project, the idea of teenagers creating dishes to help those in need of nutritious meals continues to thrive.

Director of Development and Community Affairs Deborah Ramelli said that, over the past few years, Ceres has seen an increased need from the community. Ceres caters to people who have diseases such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease, among others. Ceres was also part of the emergency food response for Sonoma and Marin counties providing meals for people who had COVID-19 and other health conditions.

“If somebody had a serious case of COVID, where they were having difficulty shopping or cooking for themselves, and they also needed to be eating a specialized diet because of one of those other health conditions, then we were serving a lot of clients in those cases as well,” Ramelli said. They are continuing to help out those who need tailored meals and meet their criteria.

With the COVID-19 surge from the omicron variant, their volunteer staffing was disrupted and Ceres had to do intensive outreach to reach new volunteers. All of their staff and volunteers are required to be vaccinated and must wear masks at all times indoors. Ramelli said they have not had any workplace transmissions since COVID-19 arrived — something the nonprofit is thankful for and proud of.

“We reduced our shift sizes, we put a lot of precautions in place to try to keep people as safe as we could. So if people are looking for a way to give back to the community, and to really make a difference, we are looking for volunteers in our kitchens in Santa Rosa and Sebastopol,” she said.

“That’s just a great way to get back to the community, to gain personal connections with other members of your community. It’s actually been shown that volunteering is beneficial for people’s health,” Ramelli said.

Volunteers for the Ceres’ Youth Development Program can be as young as 14 all the way up to 19. Positions to help with delivery or kitchen prep in the mornings are also available for adults looking to volunteer.

“We have people who do just administrative stuff for us. Just a whole wide range of people who go around and pick up food donations, deliver the meals and lots of different ways to get involved,” she said.

To be able to manage with COVID-19 they consolidated their kitchen and converted to an all-paid staff model for six months.

“We hired some unemployed restaurant chefs, we hired some experienced teens from our program. We were running two eight-hour shifts back to back five days a week to meet the demand with highly skilled professionals who could crank out more outputs in that amount of time than we could do just with volunteers,” Ramelli said.

Volunteers came back in August 2020 but in 2021 the demand remained the same. In 2019, Ceres delivered 80,000 meals and the pandemic brought numbers as high as 184,000. Ramelli estimates it will never go back to 80,000.

“There’s just a lot of ongoing opportunity to help make that happen — to help make a really big difference in the life of somebody who is experiencing an illness, and oftentimes also living on a limited income, where access to healthy food is a guarantee,” she said.

Ramelli added the main purpose is to make healthy nourishing food more accessible. She said a number of studies have demonstrated quality of life can improve by eating meals that the same set of standards that Ceres puts on its food. In addition, insurers such as Medi-Cal have become interested in investing in meal services like theirs.

“That’s an exciting thing that’s happened over the last couple of years is that now in Medi-Cal insurers starting this year, can prescribe medically tailored food in lieu of some other health benefit that they might prescribe for a patient like a medication. They could say instead, ‘I’m going to prescribe you medically tailored meals, let’s see how you do on those,’” she said.

“That’s a really different development right for an insurer to be able to say, ‘I’m going to prescribe that you need to be eating this way and not just tell you that you should be eating that way, but make it possible for you,’” Ramelli said.

Sharing knowledge

Ceres also has a series of cookbooks and holds virtual training for those who want to learn about their medically tailored meal delivery service. Ramelli said the organization wants to provide intellectual knowledge so more people can benefit from it and other communities.

Their Sebastopol kitchen opened in 2011 and it has two gardens. Volunteers learn about growing food and what it takes to grow healthy food all the way up from soil to harvest. Ramelli said that most teens alternate between working in the kitchen and garden so they get that whole experience.

Before the pandemic clients came in three times a year to meet volunteers.

That way they can see who are the people who were cooking for them.

“And the teens can find out who they were cooking for and they can share their stories. The teens can hear from the clients what they’ve been going through, they like to ask the clients what was your favorite meal they like, they’re always curious about that,” she said.

Argus Brent, 15, heard about Ceres through his parents. Brent started volunteering during the middle of the pandemic to get a sense of regularity and help the community. He said the experience has taught him how to improve his work ethic, as well as skills related to planning.

“You know, just the entire process of setting up a recipe and making sure you have everything in place and following all the steps correctly. It has really kind of honed my skill of planning,” Brent said.

Jasper Kapur’s sister volunteered at Ceres 10 years ago. Kapur, 15, followed in her footsteps and volunteered as well. Ceres is close by to West County High School where Kapur attends school. He said he walks after school to the kitchen which is convenient for him.

“It’s really nice to help out people who would need it. I learned how important it is to really diversify and help out everyone,” Kapur said.

Editor’s note: This article was edited at 6:30 p.m. on Feb. 22 to reflect the correct number of meals delivered during the pandemic.

This article was produced by SoCoNews. See more news at soconews.org