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Under the watchful eyes of astronauts, GRCC students prepare meals, edible packaging as finalists in NASA HUNCH competition

April 20, 2023, GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – Grand Rapids Community College students are accustomed to getting feedback and guidance from professors. But this week?  Astronauts.

Two teams of GRCC students took part in the NASA HUNCH competition at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, vying to send a meal to the International Space Station or develop edible packaging to be used on future space missions. The teams will learn how they finished in about two weeks.

“It was so exciting, but it is also a little bittersweet because we’ve enjoyed working on these projects all these months,” student Katie Bird said.

Bird and Devon Vanderwall were among 10 finalists today preparing a dish for judges including Jessica Watkins, the fifth Black woman to travel into space, and the first to join a space station expedition. She recently completed a six-month stay on the space station.

Students Abby Tichelaar and Cole Herring on Wednesday pitched their edible packaging plan to NASA experts including astronaut Victor J. Glover. He recently served as pilot and second-in-command on the Crew-1 SpaceX Crew Dragon, named Resilience, and served as flight engineer on the International Space Station for Expedition 64.

The GRCC Raider Fuel NASA HUNCH teams are working under the direction of the Secchia Institute for Culinary Education, with Dr. Werner Absenger, Secchia’s program director, and Chef Jennifer Struik serving as coaches.

The Secchia Institute is partnering with the Ottawa Area Intermediate School District’s Careerline Tech Center for the culinary competition.

This year’s theme was hearty ethnic soups or stews, and the GRCC team prepared Austrian style steak soup, following strict dietary guidelines. Students closely watched levels of sodium, fat, saturated fat and looked for higher levels of fiber. Students wanted to create a meal that was flavorful, but would not create difficulties for astronauts in space.

“We learned how to be adaptable,” said Bird, who has been working on the project since September. “You have to be ready for just about anything that could happen.

The second team, through a middle college partnership with the Kent Intermediate School District’s Launch U program, was among five finalists in the Health and Biomedical Science category.

Thursday’s competition took place in the space center’s Food Lab, with all 10 teams preparing dishes as judges, guests and even celebrity chef Joshua Weissman peeking over their shoulders and conducting interviews.

Tichelaar and Herring are mechanical design students and devised edible cargo boxes in an interdisciplinary project with a goal of eliminating waste on missions, where space on aircraft is at a premium.

Their edible cargo transfer boxes hold nutrition bars, and at the end of its life cycle upcycled into an edible solution, such as gummy bears, recycled, or downcycled into plastic components.

Vanderwall said the experience opened his eyes to the wide variety of careers within the culinary world.

“There are so many ways you can go and things you can do in this field,” he said.

Students said they had some time to explore the space center, learning about the Apollo missions and Mars expeditions.

The competition was intense, but students said they had some time to meet some of the other teams from around the country.

“We swapped samples,” Wanderwall said. “I liked ours better.”