Unstuck Hero: How a grilled cheese sandwich saved the day

Getting stuck is part of being human. It’s what we do in response that makes the difference.

Today we launch Unstuck Heroes, a new series of stories about regular people hitting a wall and then finding ways to push through and improve both their lives and the lives of others. These folks serve as examples of how creativity, commitment, and belief can — bit by bit — change the status quo and send positive ripples through the system.

Our first Hero is Kristin Walter, co-founder and executive director of FeelGood, pictured above (left) with co-founder Talis Apud-Hendricks.

What do I want to be when I grow up?
In the fall of 2004, Kristin Walter was a senior at the University of Texas, working toward a double-degree in pre-med and business. Her life was comfortable. She’d grown up in a small tight-knit community, with parents who had deep faith in her abilities, and always encouraged her dreams and ambitions.

“Opportunity, love, everything was at my fingertips,” she says. “I’d had a sense of my privilege growing up but, as I got older and went to college, I began to comprehend the gravity of it.”

The realization that she’d been given so much while poverty and hunger were still a day-to-day reality for so many others made her heartsick. But it also motivated her.  She decided that her life had to be about giving back, that there was nothing else worth doing. In trying to figure out the right way to do that, she first considered some of the usual pathways.

Plan #1 was to be a doctor. Compelled by issues of gender inequality, Kristin dreamed of one day starting a hospital for women and children.

“For three years, I was dedicated to this idea of a holistic non-profit hospital,” she says. “But, as I started to understand the systems of the world, I developed different interests.”

The more she learned about poverty and injustice as products of global systems of inequality, the more gaps she saw in her own experience. How could she fight forces that she didn’t truly understand?  Her passion to understand — on a gut level — what it means to be poor, hungry, and on the brunt end of injustice illuminated another pathway.

Plan #2: to join the Peace Corps and work on the frontlines of countries with chronic hunger.

Then two things coincided. First, she discovered the work of The Hunger Project, which gave her a framework to better understand global inequality — including its connection to structures of patriarchy — and the role she might play to erase it. Second, her boyfriend came to town.

“He wanted me to stay in the States, of course,” she says. “So he said, ‘Why don’t you make grilled cheese sandwiches and sell them on the lawn for donations?’”

Like many great ideas, this one was simple. And affordable. And easy to do. Why not? she thought. Selling grilled cheese would be like selling instant comfort. And they could donate the proceeds to an organization like The Hunger Project, which had programs to fight poverty and hunger in 11 countries across the world.

So Kristin, her boyfriend, and her brother got some bread and cheese, and booked a table on campus. Within one week, they’d raised $160. Fellow students followed their noses to the “irresistible grilled cheese” and donated whatever “felt good” to them.

“After the first week, it just clicked,” Kristin says. “We were doing things that the world needed. We were raising money and having a lot of fun — and simultaneously engaging people in a conversation about hunger. It was clear that this was a model for inviting participation in an issue that was easy to be cynical about, and therefore to disengage.”

And for Kristin, this was a moment when her personal sense of purpose found the right opportunity to express itself. There wasn’t one “right” way, after all. This was a way that matched well for her. And she didn’t have to leave Texas to find it.

“Joining the Peace Corps, going over to countries with extreme poverty and chronic hunger — that wasn’t the answer,” she says. “It was about having that conversation, raising money to invest in an organization, and creating changemakers.”

She was amazed that effective changemaking could be so humble in its efforts. Whether by grilling, donating, or just talking about hunger with customers, each grilled cheese maker and eater was contributing to the world in a meaningful way.

More grilled cheese, please
Before long, the grilled cheese team of three played with different ideas to expand the project — including putting together backpack kits that students at other colleges could use to make their own sandwiches. They wanted to stay true to the simplicity of the idea, but to scale it, and to have a global impact.

Kristin partnered with her best friend, fellow UT student and cross-country running mate, Talis Apud-Hendricks, who brought experience from previous for-profit and non-profit ventures. Together, they created a business plan for the initiative they would call FeelGood.

FeelGood’s innovative approach to ending world hunger works on two levels. The organization equips college students with the resources and leadership skills to make grilled cheese sandwiches on a local level, while partnering with The Hunger Project and CHOICE Humanitarian on a global one. No less than 100% of the revenue goes to THP and CHOICE programs.

In its first six months of operation, FeelGood raised $10,000. Nine years later, that number has reached $1.57 million, with a total of 160,519 sandwiches sold. Nationally, FeelGood operates 23 college chapters. Through strategically designed training programs and annual events like the weeklong Big Cheese Summit, FeelGood students learn leadership and entrepreneurial skills. And like Kristin, they become ignited by the belief that each of us can play a role in pushing the status quo.

That is the essence of FeelGood — that small acts done with great commitment can make a big impact. That anyone of us can do it. That interconnected humanity can solve hunger. That we can value everyone as a full citizen of the world. It’s a story of partnership and belief melting together in the warmth of grilled cheese goodness.

“It’s all about trying things,” Kristin says. “You just start! And reflect. You can’t do something in a vacuum, and be naïve about the complexity of the world. But you don’t need to be paralyzed by that complexity.”

And to do that, you have to find your own pathway. Or create it.

“I’m not unique in that way,” she says. “I’m just lucky to be born in a place where I was given the tools and resources to start early.”

FeelGood has been Kristin’s full-time occupation since graduating from the University of Texas at Austin in 2005. Under her leadership, FeelGood has grown from a single-campus initiative into a vibrant national movement, impacting the lives of thousands and raising significant funds to end hunger. She lives in San Francisco with her husband — whose simple grilled cheese idea started it all — and their new daughter. 

Watch Kristin and co-founder Talis Apud-Hendricks give a TEDx talk to discover more. Find out how you can be a part of the grilled cheese revolution by visiting www.feelgood.org.

Next week: What kind of perplexed planner are you?
Last week: How to speak up and get what you need

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