Every Smile Behind a Plate is Priceless

Chef Fernando Garcia-Aguila knows what it’s like to need help. He also knows what it’s like to get that help. And now, along with employer Willow Valley Communities, he’s helping others by working with Lancaster’s Power Packs Project.

It took Fernando eight attempts before he successfully escaped his native communist Cuba. Eventually finding himself in Lancaster, PA without knowing a word of English, he worked hard and studied hard. Beyond learning the language, his focus was always on his goal of becoming an American citizen.

Along the way, Fernando was helped by so many Lancastrians who never forgot their own immigrant roots. And Fernando has never forgotten their kindness. He recalls the story of one couple he met while working at Barr’s Farm Produce stand at Lancaster’s Central Market. The job was a tough one for Fernando. He knew only a few words in English for the many fruits and vegetables he was trying to sell at the stand. Many people ignored him—too impatient to try to understand what he was saying—too much in a hurry to purchase their produce from someone who had to struggle with the words. Fernando, filled with frustration, was brought to tears several times, until the day he met a couple who said they wanted to teach him English.

During one of the language tutorials in their home, Fernando asked the couple why they were helping him. Fernando will never forget the man’s response. The man went upstairs and returned with an old photo album. The album was filled with black and white photos of his family who had come to America from the Czech Republic. “He then looked at me straight in the eyes,” Fernando recounted, “and he said, ‘The same way someone helped my family when they came here, that’s how I want to help you.’” 

“That’s what it came down to. He just wanted to help me,” Fernando remembers. “What an awesome gesture.”  And now, Fernando is delighted that he is now in a position to be able to give back and help the Lancaster community he has grown to love.

Through Willow Valley Communities’ partnership with Power Packs Project, Fernando is able to share his passion of culinary arts with the children of the School District of Lancaster. Power Packs’ mission is simple. Power Packs’ executive director, Jennifer Thompson, explains, “Nutrition plays a vital role in children’s ability to succeed in school. Hungry children can’t learn.” Power Packs helps children by helping their parents provide nutritious meals over weekends when school breakfast and lunch programs are unavailable to them. Power Packs currently serves 1,350 children 32 weeks out of school year. It operates through private donations.

Fernando, working with Power Packs, will take it one step further. He will run fun, educational cooking demonstrations using the food items donated each week to the students of the School District of Lancaster. He’ll show the children how to prepare the meal, and talk to them about the different ingredients and spices. It’s his hope that the children he works with will take what they learn from him and share it with their families at home. “It’s not so much about cooking it, but about talking about it. To be involved as a family,” Fernando explained. Fernando appreciates his position as catering chef at Willow Valley Communities and the flexible creativity it allows for him to be able to do this.

“You never know what passion you are awakening within a child when you are teaching,” Fernando says. He hopes that through this program with Power Packs, some of the children may consider culinary arts as a career path. “It would really be rewarding for me if one of the children in the program comes back to me in 20 years as a chef and says, ‘Hey, I was that kid…’”

Fernando truly believes that one meal can change everything for a child. As a boy growing up in Cuba, he had to cook for his two younger twin brothers while both of his parents worked. “Food is what started everything for me,” he remembers. “Food makes people happy and it brings people together. Mealtimes are sharing times,” he says.

But whether that one demonstration affects a child’s entire life, or just stays with them for one meal, Fernando says that even one meal with his or her family is a gift. “Every smile behind a plate is priceless,” he says with a wink.🍓 


Power Packs’ unique approach to providing a nutritious weekend meals and food preparation skills aims to teach families how to better stretch their food dollars. Power Packs provide low cost recipes and ingredients for our participants to cook a meal under $5. Our research-based methodology addresses the many factors that influence a child’s decision making: personal, interpersonal, and environmental. In partnership with school districts in Lancaster County Power Packs is approved to work within the schools, so we can collaborate with school liaisons to help meet kids and their families where they need us—and where we can help build a school-wide culture that works to decrease food insecurity.

Maureen Leader is the Public Relations and Communications Manager at Willow Valley Communities. Born and raised in New York City, she’s happiest with a full day of shopping and trying out a new, fabulous restaurant in downtown Lancaster. Maureen is inspired to write the stories of heroes that make her adopted hometown the special place that it is.

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