Founder of Caring Kitchen, April Cunningham, retires after 36 years at NCO

April Cunningham, founder of Caring Kitchen, a program that delivers nutritious meals to individuals and families facing cancer while providing community teenagers the opportunity to learn about nutrition, retired from North Coast Opportunities (NCO) on January 18 after 36 years of service. 


“I’m going to really miss working (at NCO)” Cunningham said. “I love my job. It made a big difference in my life.”  


She said she was thankful to finish her time with NCO at Caring Kitchen. The opportunity it provided her to make connections with amazing people and to positively impact the community was extremely rewarding, she continued. 


Caring Kitchen is a CERES Project affiliate program and Cunningham, and co-founder Tarney Sheldon, founded the program six years ago after attending a training run by the CERES Project in Sebastopol. 


Cunningham said the reason she co-founded the project was because of her belief in the idea that food is medicine. She said her experience cooking meals for close friends who were in the midst of medical crises and witnessing the positive effect nutritious meals had on them solidified this belief for her. 


Over six years, the program has provided roughly 2400 meals to 600 patients and their families while educating 120 teen volunteers, according to Allegra Foley, Program Coordinator for the Caring Kitchen Project and Market Match


Representatives from the Cancer Resource Centers of Mendocino County said they spoke on behalf of all the patients the meals had helped when they expressed their overflowing gratitude for Cunningham’s work at her retirement party. 


Cunningham said one of the stories that stuck with her most was from a woman who opened her Caring Kitchen delivery to find a flower Cunningham left on all summer food deliveries. The woman said that just the fact that the flower was on the meal made her realize she should make an effort to eat it because it was clear that so much love had gone into preparing it. 


“I cook with my eyes,” Cunningham said. “It has to be appealing because (cancer) patients often struggle to eat.” 


Cunningham started working for NCO in 1988 as a cook for NCO’s Head Start Child Development Program (Head Start for short) before eventually becoming the food program coordinator for the program.  


As program coordinator, she oversaw Head Start’s expansion from 6 to 13 locations and wrote a curriculum called “Food for Thought” designed to teach preschool children math, science, and literacy through food. The California Department of Education published this curriculum and integrated it into children’s education throughout the state. 


Working with Head Start was “Very fun,” Cunningham said. “I was very passionate about helping children by changing their eating habits and now I do the same thing for cancer patients.” 


Cunningham worked at Head Start for 25 years and then helped local individuals, organizations, and schools access and prepare local produce through a series of farm to fork and farm to school grants before starting Caring Kitchen. 


“April’s contribution to providing nourishing foods to young and old across Mendocino County is a beautiful legacy.” NCO CEO Patty Bruder said. “Her focus and dedication to teaching others about the healing nature of food will be felt for generations to come. " 


Cunningham said she is leaving Caring Kitchen in good hands with the remaining 4 members of her team and the nearly 50 volunteers that make the organization run. 


“I have so much respect for our volunteers,” Cunningham said. “I have so much confidence in them…. They make (the program) run. Their commitment makes it move forward.”

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