When Grace Lee started Epic Eats, a project aimed at feeding families in need on a grand scale, she didn’t expect it to continue beyond the semester.

“I didn’t think people cared enough to volunteer their time and commit to such a big project,” Lee admitted.

But the Dominican University graduate student was pleasantly surprised as volunteers from the nutrition and dietetics program stepped forward to keep the stoves hot and the healthy meals flowing to nonprofit organizations in Chicago.

“I’ve been really fortunate to have classmates and other students interested in this project and wanting to continue it,” Lee acknowledged. “It really goes to show the types of students Dominican has. These are all motivated and hard-working individuals.”

Lee, who completed a Master of Science in Nutrition program in 2022, founded Epic Eats in 2021 with funding from an Excellence in Experiential Learning (ExcEL) Scholar Award from Dominican University. The initiative called for volunteers to apply the skills they learned in nutrition courses to preparing and packaging dozens of nutritious meals for distribution to La Casa Norte, a Humboldt Park-based organization assisting homeless youth and families.

For the first meal distribution during the spring 2021 semester, about 100 individual meals were prepared in Dominican’s nutrition kitchen in Parmer Hall. Since that time, more than 800 meals have been donated to La Casa Norte, as well as Beyond Hunger, another hunger relief organization.

Volunteer roles include the manager, who recruits and oversees volunteers; the meal supervisor, who creates recipes, conducts a nutritional analysis and budgets for each meal service; food service assistants, who prepare and package the meals; and a marketing and communications officer, among other positions.

Each of the meals contains nutritional facts on the packaging and an accompanying blog post.

Alison Laton, a nutrition major who volunteered with Epic Eats during its first semester, took over as manager of the program in the fall of 2021. She coordinated the preparation and meal delivery, working with up to 10 volunteers for each of the three food services that were offered.

The meals were once again funded with an ExcEL scholarship.

“It was really rewarding knowing volunteers did this and no one was getting paid,” Laton said. “It was also a nice experiential learning experience where we got to incorporate what we learned in class out in the real world.”

Sydney Balan, a nutrition and dietetics student at Dominican, volunteered as a transportation coordinator for Epic Eats during the fall 2021 semester. The role required her to purchase the necessary groceries and deliver the completed packaged meals to La Casa Norte.

“Two girls around my age, who work for La Casa Norte, helped me unload my car and bring the big cooler bags inside,” Balan said. “They told me how hard it is for them to get food like these ready-to-eat meals for the shelter. They were so appreciative and knew these meals would not go to waste. It was an indescribable feeling of witnessing firsthand that I, along with the rest of the Epic Eats team, made a huge difference in other people’s lives through the power of food.”

Three additional meal services were offered during the spring 2022 semester under the leadership of Cassandra Hansen. Meals cooked this past spring included a brown rice, vegetable and protein box with a muffin on the side, and a vegetable casserole.

In April, Lee, Laton and Hansen presented Epic Eats’ mission and the workings of the program during Dominican’s Undergraduate Research, Scholarship and Creative Investigations (URSCI) conference.

Allyson West, faculty advisor for Epic Eats, credited Lee with identifying specific roles for each student volunteer, allowing them to gain hands-on experience in creating nutritionally-balanced meals while staying within a budget.

“It really is a great example of an experiential learning project that is student-led, but also connects with the Dominican mission of creating a more just and humane world,” West said. “They are creating this food for donation to people in the community who are having difficulty accessing healthy food.”

Shannon Jackson, director of programs at La Casa Norte, said the meals have been well-received by clients, which include youth in transitional living and individuals and families who are experiencing homelessness and reside in apartments provided by organization.

The lemon drop cookies were especially popular, with clients reaching out to see if any more were available, Jackson said.

“It’s a wonderful program,” she said. “The fact that the students take time out of their busy schedules to cook these meals, package and deliver them is amazing. We truly, truly appreciate Epic Eats.”

Though Lee is no longer involved with the project she founded, she says the response has surpassed her expectations and she hopes it will live on, drawing even more volunteers.

“One of the biggest goals for next semester is to really spread the word and open it up to non-nutrition students and get more people involved,” Lee said. “We believe this is something everyone can benefit from. The beauty of creating your own project is that you can change it however you want to. And because it’s student-led, we are always receiving feedback from students and we’re always open to creating new volunteer positions so students can do what they’d like and contribute to the project.”

 

(Photo: Alison Laton, Grace Lee and Cassandra Hansen present information about Epic Eats during Dominican’s Undergraduate Research, Scholarship and Creative Investigations (URSCI) conference in April 2022.)