ITHACA, N.Y.—Foodnet’s Mac N Cheese Bowl, a fundraiser where people taste and vote on various kinds of macaroni and cheese, is returning to an in-person event. It will be held on Wednesday, May 4, from 4 to 7:30 p.m., with a new venue at the Ithaca Farmers Market, for the first time since the start of the pandemic.

The event was first held in March 2014, as a way of drawing attention to food insecurity, isolation, senior health and other issues, as well as raising money for Foodnet Meals on Wheels. The event features local restaurants and other organizations serving macaroni and cheese with their own variations on it, and attendees can vote for which macaroni and cheese they like most.

“Mac and cheese is a good comfort food, and who doesn’t like mac and cheese, right?” Aly Evans, executive director of Foodnet Meals on Wheels, said.

Lyndsey Bullock first got involved with the Mac N Cheese Bowl in 2017, when she was invited to plan the event, and has planned the event ever since. She said that it’s easy for people to make personal touches on mac and cheese.

The event usually brings hundreds of people, and Evans anticipates 1,000 people this year. This year, Evans hopes that the outdoor venue in the Farmers Market, an open area that is still covered, will be conducive to larger crowds, especially during the pandemic.

“We’re hoping that it’s going to be packed because we have the space now,” Evans said.

Bullock said that having a larger venue than the Ithaca High School cafeteria, where the event had been held in previous years, is good for the event.

“We were starting to outgrow it,” Bullock said. “It was getting snug in there, and so it would get a little tight, and that could be a deterrent for people just in general.”

The last Mac N Cheese Bowl was held in 2019, the year before the COVID-19 pandemic. The 2020 event had to be canceled for safety reasons, a decision that was made two weeks prior to when the Bowl would have been held.

“They had everything ready to go and then they had to cancel it,” Evans said.

While 2020’s Mac N Cheese Bowl was canceled, Foodnet held a fundraising campaign to raise funds. In the summer of 2020, they began brainstorming ways for the competitors to offer something in a more spread-out way.

“At least we can still keep this event and keep Foodnet in the community’s mind,” Bullock, “especially during COVID when FoodNet has been providing so many meals and reassurance checks to people out there that were even more isolated during COVID.

In 2021, Foodnet instead held a Mac ‘n Cheese Crawl. Instead of being held on a single day, it took place over the month of March 2021, and participants had the option of buying passports that would allow them to sample the macaroni and cheese at three, half or all 12 of the competing businesses. https://foodnet.org/events/macncheese-crawl/

“The feedback we got after the Crawl was, like, ‘This is great, it was a perfect kind of pivot for covid times, but we miss the Bowl, we miss that community gathering and being able to get together,'” Bullock said.

Despite this, the Crawl raised more than $30,000, more than the 2019 Mac N Cheese Bowl, which raised around $30,000. Each Bowl has raised more than the last, and Bullock hopes to continue to increase the money raised each year.

“I think people were very aware of the support that Foodnet needed, and because of the service that Foodnet was providing, especially during times like COVID,” Bullock said of the 2021 Mac ‘n Cheese Crawl.

Planning for this year’s Mac ‘n Cheese Bowl began in May or June of 2021. Bullock said that while the Crawl served its purpose, it was difficult to coordinate with all the participants over the course of a month, rather than getting all of them together on one day.

“I think one of the biggest advantages to the Bowl is that  sense of community,” Bullock said. “The Bowl was really growing steadily before COVID, and we wanted to get back to that and allow it to grow it even more.  People were really looking forward to it each year, so it was starting to be a staple food event in Ithaca.”

While the Mac ‘n Cheese Bowl has returned this year, the organizers are still taking safety precautions. Instead of the Ithaca High School cafeteria, where the event has been held,  this year’s Mac ‘n Cheese Bowl will take place at the Ithaca Farmers Market in order to allow for social distancing outdoors. The event will have hand sanitizer available and will encourage masking.

The choice of the Farmers Market as the venue required Foodnet to hold the Mac N Cheese Bowl in May rather than March so that the weather would be warm enough for an outdoor meal They also had to hold the event in the evening on a weekday rather than a Saturday afternoon to accommodate the market’s hours,.

With food costs rising, the fundraiser is more important than ever for Foodnet.

“A fundraiser like this enables us to literally keep doing what we’re doing, keep feeding people, and manage the increasing prices,” Evans said. “We just put $100 into one van for gas, just yesterday, and we drive eight routes all over Tompkins County. That’s a lot of miles. That’s a lot of gas. The fundraising aspect of this event is very helpful for our operations.”

Evans said people enjoy the Mac ‘n Cheese Bowl because it’s a fun event that involves comfort food, and this year’s event brings the community together.

“It just feels good to experience the love of the community coming back after the pandemic closures and all the restrictions that we’ve had,” Evans said. “I think what the people are enjoying the most about planning for this event it is that it’s just so good to think about a regular event and the ability to come back together with our generous community.