Cookbook project to spark connection between generations and assist broader community


Elise Spenner

The intergenerational cookbook project allows isolated populations to bond and make lasting connections, while also producing a tangible product.

Elise Spenner and Julianna Oliver

Before the pandemic, senior citizen Gertrude Stopper would go to church multiple times a week. Occasionally, she would go downstairs and have a glass of wine at the senior living facility, but when the pandemic began, Stopper’s once-bustling social life flatlined. 

Sarah Simpson, a former neighbor, checks in with Stopper periodically, calling her once a month. But Simpson couldn’t stop thinking about the consequences of constant isolation. 

With Stopper and other seniors in mind, Simpson decided to join a project launched by the Burlingame Collaborative — a group of community-minded individuals aiming to combat negative fallout from the pandemic. 

The project was brainstormed by Namrata Mundrha, another member of the Burlingame Collaborative. It looks to confront economic and social challenges posed by the pandemic: isolation among students and seniors, harm to small businesses and rampant food insecurity.

“Let’s brainstorm some of the needs of the community and how we can solve them. Two of the most vulnerable groups we identified were students and seniors,” Mundrha said. “How do we find a way to connect the two groups?”

After brainstorming, they finalized a plan that would reach across populations and combat challenges on multiple levels — an intergenerational cookbook.

Students and seniors will be partnered together for an interview. The seniors will share a cherished recipe, along with memories and stories from their youth. The information will be compiled into a cookbook, with write-ups by teens and drawings by younger children, and printed by a local company, Mundrha said. The proceeds will then be directed towards Call Primrose — a non-profit that combats food insecurity. 

“Our goal is to make this a virtuous cycle,” Mundrha said. “So since this is about food, we thought it would be a great way for the money to go back to an organization that provides food.”

To kickstart the work, Mundrha connected with the Youth Advisory Committee (YAC) at the Burlingame Parks and Recreation Department. In a non-pandemic year, YAC would organize a Valentine’s Day dance with kids and seniors, and Mundrha’s intergenerational cookbook idea seemed like a promising substitute. 

Two members of YAC have chosen to spearhead the project, freshmen Sylvie Olson and Pierce Schuman.

“This is a way for me to give back to the elders of our community, and really overall our community,” Schuman said. “I think this project is really powerful to me. It’s an ability to give back what [the seniors] have given to me over the years.”

When Sylvie Olson was young, she would chat with older relatives or connect with the elderly at her church by scribbling crayon notes to seniors. Eight years later, Olson is excited to connect with seniors again by participating in a similarly rewarding and memorable project. 

“Now, with all of my skills, it will be much easier to communicate with them and listen to their stories and learn from them,” Olson said.

After promoting on Nextdoor, Facebook and with the library, the group has reached over 20 middle and high school students ready to conduct interviews with seniors. The excitement and eagerness among the youth give Simpson and Mundrha hope for the project.

“What we’ve had great fortune with is the enthusiasm of the students,” Simpson said. “They are just so happy to help, and they are very easy to convince to get involved with something like this.” 

While youth participants are jumping into action, the group has struggled to gain access to senior citizens. 

“They’ve been isolated in the institutions that we’ve tried to reach out to,” Mundrha said. “They’ve been overwhelmed by Covid and outbreaks as well as vaccinations. There is too much going on. Getting someone who can coordinate this for us had been a little challenging.”

In addition to the lack of coordination and access to seniors, some of the more technical logistics have slowed the process down. For YAC members, age restrictions prevent them from communicating directly with seniors, meaning that the youth coordinator, Nicole Houghton, will have to help facilitate each interaction. 

Because in-person connection is not an option, finding the ideal virtual platform for interviews has also been an obstacle.

“With seniors, they aren’t super tech-savvy,” Houghton said. “We could conduct them over Zoom, or Google Chat or Messenger, all these different forms that we are so comfortable with, but seniors are not.”

Despite the setbacks posed by the pandemic’s unique circumstances, the managers hope that this project will inspire long-term relationships. For them, the purpose goes beyond arranging and selling a recipe book — it aims to craft lasting bonds. 

“We are hoping that once you talk with your senior partner, that might be a way for you to say, ‘Once you’re open for visiting, I’d love to come visit you, and if you need any chores, I can help with that,’” Mundrha said.

Olson, as well, looks forward to creating a connection with and absorbing as much as possible from the senior she interviews.

“I do a lot of talking throughout my day, and sometimes it’s nice to let someone else who might not have that opportunity to share stories and memories,” Olson said. “I can’t wait to see what gossip they have.”