Jennifer Thompson

Founder and Chef, Lancaster Intergenerational Nutrition Collaborative (LINC)
Executive Director, Power Packs Project
Lancaster, Pennsylvania

Photos by Michael Miville

Photos by Michael Miville

What is LINC and what inspired you to start it?

LINC stands for Lancaster Intergenerational Nutrition Collaborative. We pair older adults and children from low-income families and teach nutrition literacy and basic cooking skills. As a retired chef, I wanted to see if pre-K children would be able to understand basic principles of food and kitchen safety and explain why using the food of the month was important for their health. I wanted to build their self-esteem and encourage creativity through an intergenerational program that encourages a positive attitude toward nutritious foods and cooking.

What did you do before you started LINC? 

I had worked in the nonprofit sector for over 20 years and then decided to make a career change and follow my passion for cooking and teaching. I became a culinary consultant and chef instructor. I began working with the Power Packs Project, a nonprofit that helps provide food for low-income children over the weekend when the school lunch program is not available. My love of teaching, cooking and using bountiful, fresh ingredients from our community made this the perfect opportunity.

What problem are you trying to solve with LINC? Why is it needed? 

Many of the children I work with have parents who work multiple jobs, live in food deserts, and have limited time, money and access to transportation. Many do not cook or eat at home. Too often, the children eat fast-food from the dollar menu and do not have a consistent balance of fresh prepared meals that help them thrive and grow into healthy teens.

During a child’s early developmental years, it’s important for them to eat nutritious foods that are fresh and avoid highly processed foods that may be budget-friendly but do not offer the nutritious value of fresh foods. My goal is to make sure that children, especially low-income children, learn simple cooking skills and are introduced to new produce and flavors to begin healthier habits. LINC is an opportunity for children to educate their parents and siblings in the hope that families try new foods and flavors and that behaviors change in a positive way.

How does LINC work? 

We partner with our local recreation commission, which has pre-K classes and a senior center with activities and daily programming. Each week during the school year, two groups of 20 children each and 12-15 LINC trained seniors work together during a 60-minute class.

The class opens with a “Food of the Month” teaching segment, then the children and the seniors do a hands-on practical segment, like making a taco or a healthy flatbread pizza. Next, the children and seniors eat together and share their experiences with a “Food for Thought” card. Finally, the class closes with an activity that includes song and/or dance. Students and seniors also leave with an activity booklet related to the class topic with educational information, activities and coloring pages.

What makes your approach different or unique? 

There are few classes offered to pre-K children without their parents needing to be present during a class. We have found that children are willing to try new foods and culinary skills when they’re being taught by seniors who are supportive and encouraging throughout the class — we have lots of patience.

The children and seniors answer questions at the beginning and the end of the class, so we can track what they’ve learned. To encourage seniors to participate, we give them small incentives, like a digital cooking thermometers with large-read numbers or can openers with special grips for handling. In addition, the food prepared each week is shared with the senior center. We hold a graduation ceremony, where the children receive a personalized recipe binder, apron, special child-safe chef knives, measuring spoons and cups, cutting board and mixing bowls.

What is your big, audacious vision? What does the world look like in 5-10 years, if LINC achieves what you want it to? 

Within the next two years, we hope that LINC will be replicated by Head Start and other programs reaching low-income children during the school day and offered in classroom settings every week during the school year. We want to continue training and offering seniors in our community this opportunity to learn or relearn skills and encourage them to eat fresh nutritious foods just like our young people.

In 5-10 years, we’d like to see a world without food insecurity, one where our children don’t have to worry about where their next meal is coming from. In this world, children will be taking cooking classes as a fun activity in summer and in afterschool programs, learning new skills, tasting new foods and developing ongoing nutritious habits that will enable them to thrive and learn.

Paint a picture of a moment when your organization is doing exactly what you intend it to do.  

My lead trained senior, a very active grandmother who loves to share wonderful stories about her grandchildren, notices that one of our little 4-year-olds is not participating in the activity. She walks over to him and asks why he is not cutting the carrots or celery like the other children in the class. He looks up at her with a sad face. A conversation begins between the two of them and she starts singing a little song to him. The other children at the table look up and encourage him to try. With a child-safe chef’s knife in hand, he starts cutting the carrot and they finish the activity together. That is a beautiful intergenerational teaching moment!

How can people get involved with your work?  

Seniors living in the Lancaster area can join the program at any time. For seniors who want to volunteer with the program, we offer bi-monthly train-the-trainer workshops. In addition, we make sure that all volunteers have proper clearances to be working with children in a classroom environment.

What advice would you give someone who wants to replicate what you’re doing in their community?

Seek out strong partners and places where seniors and children gather regularly. Look at local community centers, recreation commissions or Head Start sites. Establish a budget and identify local food vendors, grocery stores and foundations that can support you with startup funds or in-kind donations. Make sure you have enough seniors trained to be active volunteers. Plan for a ratio of at least one adult to two children and allow enough time to screen, train and educate the volunteers on the curriculum before classes begin. Keep class size between 15-20 children and allow for 1-2 trained instructors for each class. Lastly, use social media to tell your story and take pictures throughout each class to show people what intergenerational learning looks like.

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