Hungry to Help, NextGen Feeds Cancer Research Through Mac & Cheese Fest

Mac  Cheese Fest

Behold the power of mac and cheese.

The culinary classic is now a tasty tool to raise funds for cancer research, thanks to a group of young professionals—including several cancer survivors—who team up to treat central Ohio to the annual Columbus Mac and Cheese Festival.

The efforts of the group—the NextGen James Ambassadors Society—have helped raise approximately $138,000 for cancer research at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute (OSUCCC – James).

“There’s no better young professionals group here in Columbus,” says NextGen member Josh Barkan. “This is a way for us to give back and to gain professional experience—and have some fun.”

The NextGen group (part of the larger James Ambassadors Society) is a growing collection of professionals in their 20s and 30s who are committed to raising awareness and research funds for Adolescent and Young Adult (AYA) cancer patients and survivors. The group’s next big event is the third iteration of the Mac and Cheese Fest, which will take place at Easton Town Center in Columbus on October 5.

While the festival is filled with food and fun, its purpose is profound for NextGen members, including survivor Ashley Poland, 30, who was diagnosed with a soft tissue sarcoma during her senior year in college.

“People think only young children or older adults get cancer,” Poland says. “They never think adolescents or young adults get cancer. We’re starting our adult lives, graduating college, starting careers, getting married and having families—it’s a very difficult time to get cancer.”

“I didn’t know anyone else my age going through it and it can be isolating,” testicular cancer survivor Joe Apgar adds. “There’s not a lot of resources when you’re in this middle age—not in pediatrics or an older adult.”

To address these issues, NextGen targets a large portion of the funds it raises toward AYA research and education programs at the OSUCCC – James, including a survivorship-intervention program for young African-American women with breast cancer, an app that alerts young patients when to take their medications and a program aimed at helping survivors lead normal sex lives.

NextGen’s recipe for success includes hard work and outside-the-box thinking—and of course, a hearty helping of mac and cheese. The decision to focus on the food for fundraising came after Barkan encountered a similar event in Colorado.

“They closed off a street there and had a mac and cheese festival, and it seemed like such a great idea,” he says. “When I got home, I talked about it and thought it could be a good idea here.”

Barkan’s hunch has paid off, with the festival and the NextGen group growing over the ensuing years.

“We’re a much more cohesive group—one of our goals is to have more events for the members to be part of aside from Mac and Cheese,” NextGen member Ryan Aguiar says. “It’s awesome to be involved with The James because cancer touches everyone’s life in some way.”

Help NextGen support cancer research in a delicious way at the Third Annual Columbus Mac and Cheese Festival. Get event and ticket information.