Born and raised on the North Side of Lafayette, Dr. Jennifer Jackson looks back on her childhood as one full of happy memories. Her upbringing is what formed the foundation for what she has accomplished, and is still accomplishing, in life – she is the owner of Keystone Nutrition and has worked in education for over ten years.
“The household we were raised in was the foundation,” of what she has done with her life, Dr. Jackson said. “We didn’t go out to eat, and we especially didn’t eat fast food; with three kids you just didn’t do that. I think it was a typical upbringing.” Even so, she was definitely raised “with the bacon grease on the stove,” a common way of cooking for any Louisiana family. She was inspired at an early age to become a dietitian the first time she heard that such a profession existed. Dr. Jackson’s memories of her upbringing in Lafayette are of “an amazing neighborhood. I am still good friends with several of the people there because their parents still live there. In fact, I kept my parents’ home and moved my mother-in-law into the house, so I still get to go back to the neighborhood and go back to the house I was raised in. I truly cherish that.”
It was when her father was in the hospital that her interest was first piqued. “I remember this like it was yesterday: I was a sophomore in high school. My dad was in and out of the hospital,” Dr. Jackson said. “He was constantly sick and, back then, you didn’t talk about people being sick and you didn’t ask questions. I remember being in the hospital and a lady came into the room to talk to my dad about the foods he could eat and the foods he shouldn’t eat. I asked my mom, ‘Who’s that?’ and she said, ‘She’s a dietitian. The foods your dad eats can make him feel better or make him feel worse.’ That stuck in my mind, and I said, ‘I want to be a dietitian.’”
Wanting to learn more about her newfound calling, she decided to become a candy striper at Lafayette General, delivering food to the patients. As luck (or fate) would have it, she ended up working in a dietitian’s office during her volunteer work there.
“I knew I wanted to be a dietitian, and dietitians, in my mind, worked in the hospital, so I went to the hospital and said I wanted to be a candy striper.” Her work there made her feel like she was on the right path. She felt so confident in her choice at that early age that, when she went to study at UL Lafayette, she never changed her major.
After graduating from UL, Dr. Jackson moved to Scranton, Pennsylvania to do an internship and work on her master’s degree in nutrition from the small liberal arts college of Marywood University.
“I had no kids, I wasn’t married, and I wanted to leave Lafayette just to see how another part of the world lived,” she explained, saying that she picked Pennsylvania because she was “tired of taking two showers a day” after being out in the Louisiana heat.
“It was literally in the middle of nowhere,” she said of Marywood, but she picked it because she knew she would have a good chance of getting into their internship program, and she did. It had been a year since her graduation from UL that she moved to Scranton, and she said, “I swore I’d never come back.”
Dr. Jackson got her first job in Easton, Pennsylvania working in public health for WIC, but she didn’t particularly enjoy it. “I think I did that job for maybe six months,” she said. “Then I got a job with the state, still as a dietitian, investigating nursing homes.” She did the auditing there, making sure that health regulations involving the food were being followed. It was a year and a half after that that she discovered her passion for higher education – she began working as an administrator for Harrisburg Area Community College. By then, she had a master’s degree in education, and the president of the college encouraged her to continue on this path.
“You know how some women are,” Dr. Jackson said. “She wanted to help younger women achieve, so she encouraged me to get my doctorate.”
Having gone so far in studying nutrition, she wanted to learn more about working within universities, so she decided to get her EdD in educational leadership from the University of Phoenix, and she finished the program in 2008. She is the first person in Louisiana to earn her doctorate from there.
Jackson had said that she would never return to Louisiana. She had started a new life in Pennsylvania, working for a community college that she loved, and she had met the man who would later become her husband - Chip. However, sometimes life has a way of bringing you back home.
“My mother got sick,” Dr. Jackson said, explaining her change of heart. “God has truly blessed me. I would come home and visit Lafayette and, one Mardi Gras, I went to UL and met up with someone I knew. I told them my interest in going back to Lafayette and that, if something comes up, to let me know.” Not long after that conversation, she got an interview in July of 2005 and was set to start her job as Assistant to the President of Campus Diversity that September.
“Hurricane Katrina hit,” she said, “and let me tell you – if I hadn’t interviewed before it, I wouldn’t have been here.” Hurricane Rita hit not long after that. Rather than thinking of this as any kind of bad omen regarding her return, Jackson took it in stride. “Talk about a hurricane party! And being with my family. It brought back memories.”
She worked in the Diversity office for seven years. “In the meantime, my mother had passed from breast cancer,” Dr. Jackson said. Following her passing, Jackson was cleaning up her childhood home and found her parents’ wedding picture. “I just broke into tears,” she said, “because I thought, you never know on your wedding day, with all the future you’ve planned together,” what the future might hold. She just couldn’t sell the house with all the memories she and her family had made there. “I said, ‘This is the house they raised their family in,’ so it’s very emotional to have my mother-in-law there. It’s great.”
Dr. Jackson found that she loved being back home in Lafayette, and that she was thriving in her position at UL. “It was a dream job,” she said. She created programs for black history month, helped with an LGBT group’s campus events, and she started the university’s Women’s Conference. She is “pleased that they continue it. It started in 2008 on a Wednesday and I got married that Saturday!” With earning her doctorate, getting married, and beginning the first women’s conference of this kind in the area, 2008 was a good year.
“What was so neat about that (conference) was that there were women from all backgrounds,” she said. “It wasn’t just women in senior-level positions. It was women who were secretaries and stay-at-home moms as well. It was open to anyone.”
Though Dr. Jackson was happy with her work at UL, she found herself looking for another job in 2012 in order to grow in her career, so she took a position at South Louisiana Community College, leaving there after 14 months to start Keystone Nutrition in February 2014.
“It’s funny how you come full circle,” Dr. Jackson said. “I started my own nutrition consulting business.” She always knew that working in nutrition was her passion, but she had also learned from her time in higher education that she loved teaching. With Keystone, Jackson is able to combine the two things she enjoys most.
The work Dr. Jackson does at Keystone is primarily in corrections now. Two months after starting the business, she began doing consulting work for the Lafayette Parish Correctional Center, and now Keystone does nutrition consultation for seven parish correctional facilities.
Dr. Jackson’s contract work as a dietitian in these facilities involves counseling both the inmates and staff about proper nutrition. Her focus for the inmates is on therapeutic nutrition for those with diabetes, hypertension, high blood pressure, and other health issues that can be improved with diet. As for the staff, most of the requests she gets revolve around weight loss.
One of the most challenging things about what Dr. Jackson does has to do with people’s concerns with their weight. “Dietitians are the experts when it comes to nutrition,” she said, “yet so many people take advice from family, friends, and people on TV. I spend so much of my time with a client refuting what non-experts say. Just because something worked for one person, that does not mean it will work for another.”
Having taught nutrition classes at the University of Phoenix, Jackson knew that she wanted to incorporate her love of teaching into her new business. Aside from one-on-one consultations about nutritional education with inmates and staff, she also teaches a ServSafe course to the inmates about sanitation so they can get their certification.
“That’s probably my favorite story,” Dr. Jackson said, “because these inmates take this very intense class, about 16 hours long, and then they have to take an exam. We give them certificates at a graduation ceremony. I always tell my husband, ‘I always wanted to be president of a college. I’ve got my own college!’ Here I am teaching these classes to them, and that’s the best feeling. I love what I do here.”
Though the bulk of her work with Keystone is in corrections, Dr. Jackson also teaches nutrition education to low-income pregnant women through WIC; she works with LARC doing nutritional consultation for their food services; and she has been a keynote speaker for the Whole Foods health fair, Stone Energy, JS Clark Leadership Academy, and many others.
With four years in, Dr. Jackson is “focusing on the business.” She goes to Good Hope Baptist Church (she is the third generation of her family to attend there), spends time with family and friends, but she has dialed back on her involvement in community organizations to make sure that she is focused on providing the best work possible through Keystone.
Dr. Jackson has an amazing inner circle of friends – they regularly have girls’ nights and luncheons. She also has a very supportive husband who has been with her every step of the way in starting Keystone Nutrition.
“He truly is the one that listens to the problems and concerns,” she said. “If it wasn’t for him working full-time, I would have had to take any job I could. He let me take that time to figure out what to do. He’s my driver.”
Ultimately, Dr. Jackson feels that a person’s success depends largely upon the support system they have during childhood, and she was incredibly blessed that way. She lived in a neighborhood where she felt safe and made lasting friendships. “I’m still on the North Side,” she said. “I always tell people we could live anywhere we want, and I chose to live on the North Side. I love it.”
Dr. Jackson also credits her family for raising her with love and support. “I give the shout-outs to my parents and grandparents,” she said. “I work in jail, and these men, if you talk to them, their fathers weren’t there. It’s environment. It’s so important, especially as an African American female, that I come from parents who were married. I come from grandparents who were married. I used to spend every Friday night at my grandmother’s house. Those are my best experiences. She taught me how to be a lady.”
You can learn even more about Dr. Jackson’s accomplishments and services at Keystonenutrition.co.*** To view Dr. Jackson's complete magazine layout CLICK HERE.