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Volunteer teen chefs cater to cancer patients

Patricia Leigh Brown/California WatchVolunteers Amy Pino (left) and Sydney Weil make minted carrot salad.

Every Thursday evening during her harrowing treatments for leukemia, Eve Goldberg received Tupperware containers full of nourishment and hope.  

The 58-year-old documentary filmmaker, who survived her ordeal, appreciated that the savory organic dishes like rosemary-roasted salmon and minted carrot salad arriving at her doorstep had come from a novel local source: a group of fledgling volunteer teenage chefs dedicated to providing a nutritional edge to people with cancer.

In Sebastopol, the notion of a food chain is being redefined by the Ceres Community Project, a nonprofit organization that enlists and trains teenagers to cook nutritious meals for people in the midst of cancer treatment. The teens work under the watchful eye of a professional chef. The fruits of their labor – including a potassium-rich “immune broth” that has been a big hit with clients – are delivered weekly and without charge by another group of volunteers, most of them recovered cancer patients.

“Cooking for someone who is sick is really nice,” said 14-year-old Candler Weinberg, whose math wizardry comes in handy for measuring ingredients. “I can walk out of here every week feeling like I helped change someone’s life.”

In Ceres’ bustling commercial kitchen in downtown Sebastopol, some 80 high school students gather on alternating weeks to blanch cauliflower, steam carrots and slice mushrooms with their newfound knife skills before undertaking more prosaic tasks – packing the meals into plastic containers that will fan out across Sonoma County to more than 50 cancer patients. They also wash dishes and mop the floor.

Last month, this exuberant culinary support team prepared 2,300 meals. Some 30,000 meals were distributed last year, each recipe designed to ease side effects and provide a nutritional foundation for recovery. Many of the recipes are included in Ceres’ new cookbook, “Nourishing Connections: The Healing Power of Food & Community.”

“Cancer treatment is extremely debilitating to the appetite,” said Cathryn Couch, a former chef who started her own gourmet home delivery service before founding Ceres four years ago. “The first thing people need is to eat well. But that’s exactly what goes out the window.”

Those undergoing chemotherapy, radiation and other treatments often face a host of challenges related to food. They include loss of appetite, nausea, dry and sore mouth, and changes in taste, with food seeming bitter or metallic. Decreased absorption of nutrients can lead to malnutrition, a potentially life-threatening condition affecting up to 85 percent of patients with pancreatic and certain other cancers. 

Goldberg, who had two bone marrow transplants in addition to chemotherapy, remembers “feeling disgusted” by food, hating the smell of cooking. Precooked meals and culinary tips from the Ceres “delivery angels” – such as adding lemon or ginger to water – “was a really big deal,” she told the young cooks recently.

The group is named after Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture. Although the project’s feel-good quotient is considerable, it underscores a growing body of research about the link between nutrition and cancer. Studies have shown that those who eat red meat, processed foods, and refined sugar and flour are at a higher risk for developing or dying from cancer. The American Cancer Society has estimated that obesity in the U.S. contributes to 14 to 20 percent of all cancer-related deaths. 

“Most Americans can identify tobacco as a major cause of cancer,” said Dr. Donald I. Abrams, chief of oncology at San Francisco General Hospital and a professor of medicine at UC San Francisco. “But only half can identify nutrition – what we eat and don’t eat – as a cause of preventable malignancy.”

Among people with cancer, Abrams said, those whose diets are heavy on refined sugars and fats have a three times greater likelihood of a recurrence (cancer loves sugar) than those whose diets are rich in fruits and vegetables. At the UCSF Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, Abrams, an integrative oncologist and Ceres adviser, stresses the importance of eating right, frequently handing patients the group’s cookbook, which “really walks the walk,” he said.  

He pointed out that fewer than 10 percent of U.S. teenagers eat the recommended five fresh fruits and vegetables a day.

“Teaching high school students how to cook healthy meals, delivered to people with cancer, is a win-win situation,” Abrams said.

For three months – sometimes longer – the group provides four full meals a week to clients and their families, receiving discounted rates on free-range eggs, honey and the like from local farmers. Ceres got its start when Couch took a friend’s daughter under her wing to cook for a mutual friend with stage 2 breast cancer. There is now a waiting list to join the group, which has inspired efforts around the country, with a new branch in Marin County and similar programs in Bay Village, Ohio, and Summit, N.J.

Ceres recently received a $348,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to gauge the program's impact on the eating habits of both recipients and teen volunteers. Rob Hogencamp, the project’s 40-year-old Alabama-born chef, recalled his shock the day the teens first tackled caramelized Brussels sprouts, a cruciferous vegetable that contains potent cancer risk-reducing chemicals.

Patricia Leigh Brown/California WatchWenya Yang, 16, blanches cauliflower.

“I literally had to ask them to stop eating the Brussels sprouts,” he said.

Rebecca Katz, author of “The Cancer-Fighting Kitchen” and a chef and nutritional consultant for the Commonweal Cancer Help Program, helped Ceres develop recipes that coax the appetite, boost the immune system and help create an inhospitable environment for cancer cells to grow and flourish. Fermented foods like sauerkraut, for instance, support healthy intestinal bacteria that help the body digest and assimilate food, she said. The “immune soup,” which includes kombu seaweed, is high in potassium and trace minerals that often are depleted in cancer therapy.

“Nutrition is science,” Katz said. “Nourishment is what you turn the science into as a cook.”

Many Ceres clients are isolated and alone, too weak to shop, cook or clean. Receiving and enjoying healthy, aesthetically pleasing food “can give people a sense of control,” she said.

Not all cancer stories end happily, of course – an aspect of life the teenage cooks must occasionally confront. Molly Endries, a 17-year-old high school senior, recalled a visit from a woman in her 60s with terminal throat cancer who stopped by the kitchen one day to say thank you.

“It was sobering,” Endries said. “She knew she was dying and had difficulty talking. But she told us that it was all OK. To see a woman so secure and strong about her life and not be afraid was amazing.”

Kate Schaffner, a 54-year-old equestrienne, became a volunteer after rebounding from colon cancer and attending a Ceres Healing Foods Cooking class taught by the project’s nutrition director.  

On a recent foggy evening, she delivered meals to Sheri Warburton, a 49-year-old life insurance agent and artist. Warburton has been in chemotherapy on and off for six years for colon cancer that has spread to her lungs. She is unable to work and has at times suffered from depression. The arrival of vegetable frittata and other dishes is physically, emotionally and financially fortifying for her.

“I probably would be skipping meals, so this is a godsend,” she said.

Carolyn Besse, a baker from Santa Rosa, has just begun radiation treatments after chemotherapy and surgery for breast cancer. Although her signature as a baker is whipped cream-cheese icing – she knows food – she recognizes that the most important ingredient being delivered to her door is not found in a cookbook. 

“You can tell when something has been made with love and a sense of purpose,” she said.


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