By Megan Matthews
Grand Rapids Community College’s Secchia Institute for Culinary Education team prepares for the annual NASA HUNCH competition taking place at 1 p.m. on Feb. 11 at the Grand Rapids Public Museum.
NASA HUNCH is a nationwide competition where students learn to cook and create cost-effective hardware and soft goods for use on the space station and for the training of NASA astronauts and flight controllers.
The GRCC teams are a part of the Culinary Challenge where they are making Austrian Steak Soup as part of NASA’s ethnic soup requirement, and the Biomedical Challenge where they are tasked with creating edible packaging.
The team consists of two faculty coaches Jennifer Struik and Werner Absenger, two students from Allendale High School Devon Vanderwall and Katie Bird in charge of cooking, and two students from the Launch You early middle college program, Abby Tichelaar and Cole Harring who are in charge of creating the edible packaging.
“What I really like about GRCC’s culinary program is that I can stay on the cutting edge of culinary arts, and I can get a glimpse of what might be the future of culinary,” said Absenger. “This competition is a perfect example of that.”
GRCC’s team has been meeting consistently every Wednesday since late October. The culinary team was given nutritional guidelines to meet by NASA and did an initial research project to begin learning about the different ways certain foods affect astronauts in low gravity based on their nutritional value before beginning to cook.
“You learn a lot during this project,” said Bird, 17 of Allendale. “Especially how to be very precise when chopping and specific with the measurements for consistency because that’s very important for this competition.”
Once the team began cooking it was important that the students were extremely preside about their measurements to meet NASA’s guidelines.
“So the trickiest part was after the first cook day we measured everything, like how many solids or liquids we had and then we calculated exactly how many portions that will give you,” said Absenger.“ Based on what we thought, we had to tweak the recipe to meet the nutrition guideline NASA put forth. I think we went back and forth for about five sessions to get the recipe just right.”
During the actual competition, teams will have about 2.5 hours to prepare their dish. Afterwards they present a small portion to 20 judges who have a set criteria to judge each dish.NASA then uses their evaluation to determine the outcome of the competition.
“The event is open to the public, so I think the most challanging part will be the crowd while we are cooking,” said Vanderwall, 18 of Allendale. “That being said, at the same time I am also excited for the crowd a little bit because having that stage will be really cool.”
The students who win the first round on Feb.11 will move on to the next round taking place in Houston, which is the final competition consisting of 10 finalists.
The biomedical team is then in charge of creating edible packaging. This project is about providing nutrition to astronauts while also reducing waste.
Students began researching and found a substance that can be turned from a storage container to an edible solution like gummy bears.
“You would submerge it into a monomer and from there you can put an alkaline solution in like baking soda and it will separate into lactic acid which you use to make gummy bears and all sorts of food related items,” said Harring, 18 of Lowell.
The box is designed for maximum storage space as well as being safe enough to hold delicate computer equipment. In addition to this there are built in slots inside the box that hold nutrition bars. Then at the end of the box’s lifetime it can be broken down into food rather than just trash taking up space on the aircraft.
“Creating this design has taught me a lot about cooperation,” said Tichelaar, 18 of Rockford. “When we first started the design process Cole and I were both coming up with ideas, and we would kind of pull and take from each other’s designs and say ‘let’s put it together and make it into one design’ which is how we ended up with the design for the container we have now.”
The design team spent about three months creating a box design that is still undergoing minor tweaks leading up to the competition.
“Overall this project is a great interdisciplinary collaboration,” said Absenger. “I’m a food person, as well as the other students, but Abby and Cole are mechanical design people but yet here we are spending an incredible amount of time together trying to solve a food problem and I think that is pretty cool.”