The Caring Kitchen Project serves cancer patients through food and volunteerism

The Caring Kitchen Project serves cancer patients through food and volunteerism

by Elizabeth Archer
photos by Martin Wattenburger

The Cancer Resource Center of Mendocino County (CRC) is a key partner and connects patients with the program. According to CRC Support Services Manager, Nancy Johnson, they try to Word of Mouth • Winter 2017 Mendocino County is home to an impressive array of community service projects. But if you’re looking for one that touches all walks of life, look no further than the Caring Kitchen Project.

A new project of North Coast Opportunities, Inc. (NCO), the Caring Kitchen Project covers a lot of bases: healthy food access and education, volunteerism, job training for youth, cancer recovery support, and community and local economy development. How does one small project do so much?

The Caring Kitchen Project is the 13th affiliate of the Ceres Community Project, a nationwide program that started in Sebastopol 10 years ago. The mission is primarily to prepare and deliver nourishing plant-based meals to families struggling with the challenges of cancer. The secondary missions are multifold: The meals are prepared by volunteer teen chefs-in-training, providing them with job skills, volunteer opportunities, and the chance to give back to and connect with their community. Most food that isn’t donated is purchased from local farms.

Since starting the “grow a row” campaign in May, in which gardeners and farmers are encouraged to grow and donate extra produce, more than 650 pounds of local fruits and vegetables have been donated by dozens of individuals and farms. Caring Kitchen orders additional produce through the MendoLake Food Hub, also an NCO program, which supports local farmers. Finally, food comes from a dedicated garden plot at the Willits Community Garden, which was recently planted with fall favorites like herbs, onions, and greens by teen volunteers.

“It’s a very flexible menu,” explains Kitchen Manager, April Cunningham. “I write the menus a month in advance, but we adapt them each week depending on what comes our way.”

Training for teen and adult volunteers took place over the summer—during which volunteers got their food handler’s permits, and about a dozen teens and 10 adults actively volunteer. Food is prepared every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday at Saint Anthony’s Catholic Church in Willits.

“The teens walk in the door and add life to the kitchen,” says April. “They are learning a lot and improving rapidly.” Adds AmeriCorps Vista member, Holly Ordinans, “They’re developing useful skills, and they’re also doing something for their local community, which gives them pride and purpose.” Health and Human Services Teen Coordinator, Tina Tyler-O’Shea works with the project to recruit and manage the teen volunteers. “Tina is immensely helpful,” says April. “It’s vital to the project to have her support.” 

The Caring Kitchen Project started delivering meals on September 21 to nine patients and their families throughout Mendocino County. Each weekly delivery includes, per person, one chicken or fish entrée, one vegetarian entrée; a quart of soup; salad with homemade dressing; one or two vegetable sides; and a healthy dessert. A sample menu might include salmon with roasted vegetables, Asian chicken with rice noodles, a kale cheddar frittata, carrot ginger salad, coleslaw, and a fruit crisp.

“We do a lot of storytelling with the teens about where the food comes from, which helps them connect the food they’re cooking to the community that grew it,” says April. “We also emphasize how important it is to pour love into the food, because it’s part of someone’s healing process.”

The Cancer Resource Center of Mendocino County (CRC) is a key partner and connects patients with the program. According to CRC Support Services Manager, Nancy Johnson, they try to choose patients who have always wanted to eat healthier. “People are loving the food—even the kids who say they’re picky eaters,” says Nancy. “And we love that the program serves everyone in the household. They learn as a family how to eat better. The goal is for them to take these new skills and habits and stick with them for life.”

Project Manager Tarney Sheldon has been following the Ceres Community Project for years. Tarney has worked at NCO since 2009 on food access and nutrition education, and Ceres was always in the back of her mind. “It seemed like it would be such a good fit for our community,” explains Tarney. “I love how it connects volunteerism, local food, and healing meals for cancer patients. It’s a win-win-win for everyone involved.”

As Ceres affiliates sprouted in 12 other communities around the country, Tarney became even more energized to make it happen here. She approached the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors, and they voted to award a $10,000 grant to get the project started. Soon after, the Caring Kitchen Project became Ceres affiliate #13. So far, most funding has come from NCO and Mendocino County Health and Human Services Agency (HHSA), with contributions from Howard Memorial Hospital and Adventist Health Ukiah Valley. NCO has applied for a number of funding opportunities, and one volunteer wants to start researching possible grants.

“So far, it’s a shoestring operation,” says Tarney. “We’re doing great work thanks to the support of so many organizations and volunteers, and we look forward to doing even more once we secure additional funding.” This winter, they will be launching a Healthy Heroes campaign, which encourages people to become monthly contributors.

“However people choose to treat cancer, the one thread that connects it all is nutrition,” says Nancy. “That’s what makes the Caring Kitchen Project so impactful.”

If you want more information or are interested in volunteering, contact Tarney Sheldon at or (707) 462-1950. You can also find the project on Facebook and Instagram: “NCO Caring Kitchen Project.”

Elizabeth Archer is an enthusiastic eater and promoter of the local food scene in Mendocino County. She and her husband run Carson and Bees, a beekeeping operation in Ukiah.