College athletics is big business. Just like professional sports teams, colleges and universities employ a team of coaches, trainers and dietitians to develop high-performing student-athletes. With ever more knowledge of the role nutrition plays in maximizing academic and physical performance, you can add campus foodservice to the team of professionals dedicated to developing college sports teams and their athletes.
"It is about collaboration and communication from athletic directors all the way to the athletes," Larry Macomber, executive chef for Levy Restaurants at Oregon State University (OSU) in Corvallis, says about the intersection of dining and athletics. "I meet with the deputy director of athletics biweekly to discuss everything from billing and tracking, to improvements and directions of the program. I meet with team head coaches, coaches, director of operations and trainers when necessary to discuss any needs for their program, and I meet with [the OSU athletics sports dietitian] weekly to discuss menus, athlete training, or education concerning food, nutrition and ways to incorporate knowledge for our athletes."
At OSU, it takes a lot of collaboration to ensure the nutrition needs are met for the 500 student-athletes playing 17 sports.
"Being able to collaborate effectively with a foodservice team is instrumental in delivering optimal nutrition to our student-athletes," Stasi Kasianchuk, MS, RD, CSSD, sports dietitian for Oregon State University Athletics says. "Quantity food production requires a team to execute, and with the growing fields of food and nutrition it is near impossible for any one person to know everything or have all the resources needed."
Another large student-athlete operation is found at North Carolina State University (NC State), where chef Manley Cosper and Diana Nguyen, MS, RD, CSSD, director of sports nutrition, collaborate to meet the needs and taste preferences of 550 student-athletes in 23 sports.
According to Cosper, "fluidity, openness to change, collaboration and being able to react to specific needs are the biggest necessities to having a good relationship with athletics."
Nguyen says the collaboration allows her to better control the nutritional value of meals while the foodservice team offers healthier versions of the foods their student-athletes love. Examples include puréeing squash to add to pasta sauce and adding cooked mushrooms to mix with ground beef for burgers.
Variety and Customization
College training tables today offer lots of variety so that male and female student-athletes of wide-ranging weights and ages, spanning upwards of 15 different sports and requiring special dietary needs can uniquely tailor their meals and snacks for optimal performance.
Macomber and his team prepare the OSU Performance Table with a variety of make-your-own stations so athletes can customize their fueling needs. Stations offered with a variety of ingredients for individual athlete tailoring include smoothies, deli, fruit and yogurt parfaits. They also have an action station that ranges from eggs and omelets in the morning to pastas, fajitas, barbecue and other made-to-order items in the afternoon and evening.
At NC State, Nguyen has implemented a green/yellow/red labeling system tailored to sports nutrition principles to help athletes build a plate that is unique to their needs, whether that is basic proper fueling, rebuilding and recovery or weight gain.
"Healthy food is the foundation for performance nutrition, and with the labeling system, variety of foods and emphasis of freshness, our student athletes are able to learn how to fuel their own bodies," Nguyen says.
Comfort and Familiarity
College foodservice teams emphasize that feeding student-athletes is about more than just optimal performance on the field.
"Food brings people together and makes them feel at home, so providing that piece is as important as the fuel we provide," Macomber says. "It can be pretty intimidating for a new athlete to come into a room full of new faces and surroundings. The more at home we can make someone feel, the less stress on the athlete."
And because it’s a college campus, making students feel at home means ensuring international food is present, something Kasianchuk says Macomber does by going the extra mile and doing research for athletes from different cultures. "We have a lot of Polynesian athletes, and Chef Larry has worked to incorporate Polynesian foods into the menus," she says.
Beginning with Breakfast
When it comes to maximizing student-athlete nutrition, universities are focusing on the benefits of providing breakfast. Notorious for being "the most important meal of the day," breakfast not only maximizes physical and mental performance but also sets the tone for making healthful choices all day long.
"Oregon State University did a great thing last year and incorporated an all athlete breakfast for which the administration picks up the cost," Macomber says. "This breakfast helps our athletes be better students as well as assist in their training."
Kasianchuk agrees this was a "huge step in a positive direction" for OSU student-athletes. "By providing breakfast, [we provide] examples of foods that ideally they will recognize as options to choose when they are eating on their own."
Cosper and his team at NC State stress the importance of healthful breakfast options as well.
"From my standpoint, the emphasis has been on delicious-tasting food," Cosper says. "We want the athletes to get their calories and nutrients from proper eating, not supplements. We offer a wide range of food selections while keeping staples for those athletes that are on strict diets."
NC State offers vegetables at breakfast, including roasted tomatoes, mushrooms, spinach, broccoli, sweet potatoes and other root vegetables, and have introduced alternative breakfast meats in lieu of bacon such as roasted chicken thighs and chicken and turkey sausage. They also offer smoothie bowl bars and ethnic favorites, like huevos rancheros.
An Opportunity for Education
Food also provides an educational platform for these student-athletes.
"Offering breakfast to all athletes was more successful than we thought it would be last year, with average participation being 350 to 400 out of approximately 500 athletes per meal," Oregon State’s Kasianchuk says. "With this participation level, we see breakfast as an opportunity to not only fuel our athletes but to provide nutrition education."
In collaboration with the athlete life skills program, they are initiating a program called Beaver Buzz that will bring in presenters from campus and the community to discuss various topics of interest for the athletes. The first topic slated for this fall is local foods featuring a local farm and seasonal food.
At NC State, Cosper and Nguyen have teamed up to make the training table a classroom as well. They provide a monthly Nutrition Booth, which ties in performance nutrition education with the opportunity for student-athletes to sample new healthful menu items. The most recent booth focused on smoothie bowls and healthful toppings.
In addition to feeding an entire campus community and catering a myriad of special events, campus foodservice associates are interacting with their respective athletics departments to ensure student athletes' dietary needs are being met. The best part? To them it is not another responsibility to attend to, but rather an honor to feed their student-athletes for success—on the field, in the classroom and for life.
Photos courtesy of NC State University and Oregon State University