Jul 23, 2018Stony Brook Fueling Station boosts athlete nutrition
A fueling station allows athletes to include fast, nutritious snacks into their busy schedules. Here’s how Stony Brook University implemented one without breaking the budget.
Since the NCAA deregulated fueling for Division I schools in 2014, some athletic departments have spent millions of dollars on performance nutrition. That’s obviously not an option everywhere, so what’s an alternative for schools with a limited budget?
At Stony Brook University, we decided to create a cost-effective fueling station. We got it up and running in the spring 2017 semester.
Some question whether a fueling station can make much of a difference — I know strength coaches who feel there’s no point in investing in nutrition at all with a limited budget. I couldn’t disagree more.
Providing something is always better than providing nothing, especially because good nutrition is a constant challenge for athletes. Between practices, academic requirements, and workouts, they rarely have enough time to eat. Even if your fueling station simply offers a granola bar between meals, a high-protein yogurt after a workout, or some fruit before practice, you’re still setting your student-athletes up for success.
That said, developing a fueling station does require advanced planning. It’s a department within a department that has its own budget, staffing, and scheduling considerations, so you need to devote the proper time and resources to it.
Without your administration’s consent, your plan for a fueling station will go nowhere, so get them on board first. Fortunately for me, the fueling station was my leadership’s idea.
When I was hired at Stony Brook in June 2016 as Assistant Athletics Director for Athletic Performance, Director of Athletics Shawn Heilbron and former Deputy Director of Athletics Donna Woodruff told me that one of the areas they hoped to grow was performance nutrition. They asked me to present some ideas on a fueling station, including how it would look and what it might cost.
I then spent the fall of 2016 reaching out to other universities, speaking with vendors, and projecting costs to figure out how we could create the fueling station. Within our conference, I contacted the University of Vermont and the University of New Hampshire and asked them who ran their fueling stations, what types of products they provided, and the annual costs.
» ALSO SEE: Meeting the nutrition needs of teenage athletes
For vendors, I spoke with our own campus dining services, several nearby grocery stores, and local companies that carried items like granola, nuts, and cereal. As I made these calls, I maintained an Excel spreadsheet that listed all the potential items we could get from the vendors, along with the per-unit price for each. This allowed us to get an idea of our costs, while coming up with a tentative plan for our menu.
If you decide to do similar research at your school, my biggest piece of advice is to take detailed notes on the prices and other information you gather from vendors. You never know when you may want to add something in the future. I would also ask them up front if they deliver products. Certain places are pickup only, which adds another responsibility for the fueling station staff.
I’m lucky to work in a department where the administration was already convinced of the benefits of sports nutrition. But if you need to sell the idea to your leadership, doing research first can be the key to getting the green light. The more information you can present to them, the better.
Cost & equipment
Informed by my research and with the support of my administration, my performance staff and I started to tackle the logistics of putting the fueling station together. First, we had to figure out our budget.
The athletic department set aside $30,000 for the fueling station, but we had to break down how that money would be spent. To do this, we began by estimating how many athletes we expected to serve on a daily basis. Each athlete would only be allowed to visit the fueling station once per day, and we had more than 400 student-athletes total. Factoring in team travel, classes, and practice, we settled on an estimate of 200 daily visits.
Next, we set a $1.50 per-unit threshold for food items, with some products falling well under that amount. Then, I multiplied 200 x $1.50 to calculate our daily feeding budget.
Since it was our first year and we didn’t have any previous data to rely on, we were nervous about staying within the budget. The last thing we wanted to do was overspend up front and not be able to provide products to our athletes for the entire year. Sticking to our $1.50 per-item limit worked in our favor because we had the funds to add new items as time went on. We also planned for the station to be closed on weekends, breaks, and in the summer, which would help us save money.
Another expense to factor in was the physical fueling station. We bought a cart costing $6,000 that looks similar to those used to sell snacks or drinks at sporting events.
The cart came with the option to custom wrap and brand it however we wanted. We chose to decorate ours with our school colors and logos.
In addition, we compiled nutrition facts and tips that we printed along the cart’s sides and have available as handouts. Further, there’s a dry erase board next to the fueling station where we post our menu for the day and any snacking suggestions.
Once we had a cart, we had to find a good place to put it. We chose a space in the building that houses our academic center, athletic training room, weight room, basketball and volleyball gym, and batting cages. Most of our athletes pass the fueling station at least once a day, so it’s super convenient. To choose an optimal location for your fueling station, my advice is to pick an area where you have the most foot traffic.
For our cold food items, we placed two small refrigerators at the fueling station. These units only hold what we need for the day, and we keep the rest of the cold products in a nearby storage closet that houses several large refrigerators.
Stock the shelves
With the fueling station cart purchased and placed, we had to decide what snacks we would provide. Beyond the $1.50 per-item limit, there were a number of factors to consider:
Shelf life: We wanted some of the products to have a long shelf life so we could buy them in bulk. Items such as granola bars, pretzels, and cheese sticks last for several weeks, which would allow us to purchase them in larger quantities and save money.
Grab-and-go foods: We knew a lot of athletes would be grabbing snacks from the fueling station and putting them in their bags for later, so we wanted to have options that could last without refrigeration. These include granola bars, dry cereal, and pretzels.
Different fueling needs: We wanted to offer both meal replacements and smaller snacks for athletes. Items like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, protein cereal, and smoothies would provide us with “meal” options, while things like mixed fruit cups, Greek yogurt, and granola bars would allow us to offer more traditional snacks.
Keeping all of these factors in mind, we first turned to our campus’ registered dietitian for help. She connected us with dining services, and we ordered some of the products they serve around campus, such as peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and yogurts. We were able to tap into the bulk discounts dining services gets for these products, which reduced our costs.
Besides campus dining, we utilized several local businesses to get food for the fueling station. For instance, we ordered other bulk items from nearby distributors like BJ’s Wholesale Club and supermarkets.
In addition, we were approached by a young Long Island-based meal preparation and snack company called X-Factor that was trying to break into the performance nutrition market. They came to meet with me and my staff, and I was very impressed with their products and professionalism. Soon after, they met with our development team and signed on as corporate partners. We benefit from the partnership because they deliver protein cookies, protein cereal, and mixed fruit for the fueling station every Monday morning.
Another partnership sprang from a pre-existing relationship our development team had with the owner of a local Jamba Juice. We met with him to discuss how his products could help our student-athletes, and we set up a formal arrangement last fall to serve his smoothies.
The smoothies are picked up by one of our staff members every Friday. We order a variety of flavors and switch them up each semester. Although the cost of the smoothies exceeds our $1.50 per-unit target, we feel they are worth it because they have been a big hit with our athletes as a way to cap off a week of training.
When it comes to finding and developing relationships with local businesses, my advice is to create a wish list of all the items you would like to have at your fueling station, regardless of your budget. From there, look within your community for companies that might be able to provide what you want.
I would also highly suggest sitting down with your development team to discuss your goals and needs. Our team at Stony Brook does an amazing job cultivating relationships within the community, and yours will likely have a strong network that you can tap into.
My staff and I knew we wouldn’t be able to simultaneously manage the fueling station and tend to our other responsibilities, so the last step we took before opening the fueling station was finding people to run it. Working with the Health Science Department at Stony Brook, specifically Donna Crapanzano, MPH, RPAC, Clinical Assistant Professor, we set up an internship. Five to 10 students in the department staff the fueling station in rotating shifts. Most of them have been seniors looking for work experience to build their resumes before graduation.
We always schedule two interns per shift, and the shifts are two to five hours long. Coaching Assistant Kate Newell, MS, CSCS, oversees their hours and duties, which include managing inventory, handing out products, and answering questions from the athletes. To make sure the interns know the proper procedures to follow, we developed a staff manual for them that covers opening, closing, setup, clean up, absence policies, and other pertinent information. (See “In Writing” below for more on what this manual includes.)
We make the internship a meaningful academic endeavor for the students by allowing them to customize it. When they begin, we ask about their goals and use their responses to determine the best plan for their internship. Since the program is tied to our athletic performance department, we offer the option to split their hours with our strength and conditioning staff in the weightroom. Some students prefer to only work the fueling station, while others take advantage of the opportunity to gain experience in both areas.
Up & running
The fueling station officially opened in the spring 2017 semester. Its hours of operation are from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily. Most teams practice in the mornings or afternoons, so this time period is when the bulk of our athletes are either finishing or starting practice-which means they will likely be passing through our building.
For example, football is the first team to lift, and they go train in groups from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Since we open at 10 a.m., they are able to grab a snack from the fueling station after workouts and before they head to class. Our goal is for athletes to have at least one window before or after practice where they can access the fueling station. True to our estimate, we generally see about 200 athletes per day.
It was pretty easy to get the athletes to use the fueling station. Picking a centralized location that has heavy foot traffic certainly helped. Additionally, we created an Instagram page and posted about the options we were providing to get the word out.
A challenge we faced early on was figuring out how much product we would go through. Because we didn’t know what the day-to-day traffic would look like, we prepared for the maximum number of visits. This is where buying in bulk really came in handy, as we knew we’d have enough to accommodate all of our athletes, if necessary. We also waited to display some of our more expensive items to ensure we would have enough of them to last the entire semester.
Once we determined what products were the most popular, we calculated how much of each we would need weekly. With the products that expire quickly, we order a set amount that we know we will go through. If we happen to run out, we replace the product with something else for the remainder of the week-we always have backup options ready.
We also place an iPad at the fueling station with all of our rosters loaded onto it. As athletes walk up, they give their name and sport, and our interns record what they take. We review this information every couple of weeks.
If certain athletes or teams aren’t utilizing the fueling station or certain food items, we try to figure out why. For example, when we first opened the station, we found that the volleyball team wasn’t using it as much as other squads. When we asked why, the players said they were afraid to eat right before practice because they thought they might feel sick. After we explained that most of the fueling station products could be taken and eaten later and that some of the smaller snack options would help fuel their practice, their usage increased.
To keep athletes interested in the fueling station, we add new items to our rotation every couple of weeks. Our first year, we put peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on the menu late in the semester, and the athletes loved them. Simple changes, such as a special flavor of smoothie, a new granola bar, or a different type of fruit go a long way, as well.
After a full year with the fueling station, we’ve definitely learned a lot. For one thing, we have discovered that the total cost of the fueling station varies each semester. During the spring, teams like baseball, men’s and women’s lacrosse, and softball travel quite a bit, which reduces the total number of athlete visits per week and our costs.
As a result, we cut back on the number of perishable items we offer in the spring. For instance, we may only put out 75 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches each day as opposed to the 100 we might make during the fall.
We also received some great athlete feedback after our first year. At the end of last spring, we did an exit survey with all of our athletes to determine what items they liked and didn’t like. This helped us make some decisions for the next semester in terms of what to purchase and what to eliminate. The most requested item was smoothies, and we were able to provide them in year two.
Looking ahead to next year, we are aiming to offer a variety of larger snack items. Yogurt, cereal, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches tend to be some of the biggest hits for us, and it would be helpful to provide more of these options. In addition, we are considering items like pre-made wraps and sandwiches.
Perhaps the biggest lesson we’ve learned from this process has been that creating a fueling station on a limited budget is possible. For others looking to take this step, I’d say start small and work your way up. It is important to over-budget a bit on the front end to give yourself some peace of mind-our goal was to under-promise and over-deliver. Just remember, anything you do to help your athletes fuel will pay off for them.
Piece by piece
Based on my experience, there are multiple steps to launching a fueling station:
- Getting your administration on board.
- Figuring out how many athletes you are going to serve.
- Determining how much each food item will cost in order to predict your budget.
- Finding a location to store bulk items and those that require refrigeration.
- Locating a centralized spot to set up the fueling station.
- Selecting snacks that make sense, both for your bottom line and for your athletes.
- Setting your hours of operation and deciding how you are going to staff, manage, and take inventory for the fueling station.
Before our fueling station opened, I put together a manual to prepare our interns to manage it. Here is the handout we give to them on the first day:
What the Fueling Station is All About:
The importance of all-day fueling cannot be understated. Student Athletes have extremely busy schedules and need healthy nutritious snacks to be able to perform on the field, in the gym, and during class. Due to high training volumes and course loads, student-athletes often have extended blocks of time with little break in between to eat meals. Rarely do student-athletes have or take the time to prep meals and snacks in advance; therefore, many are not adequately fueling throughout the day. The Seawolves Fueling Station gives the students the option to eat on the go and to stay fueled for their busy academic and athletic lives.
Of note, these snacks are not meant to replace meals. Rather, athletes are encouraged to take snacks during the times that they have most difficulty finding and eating something nutritious (i.e. pre-practice, post practice, before/after class).
We will be providing a choice of three to four healthy snacks for athletes to choose from each day. Fridays will include Jamba Juice.
- 75 protein cookies
- 50 fruit
- 50 cereal
- *Cheese sticks (unlimited)
- 50 yogurt
- 50 cereal
- *Cheese sticks (unlimited)
- 50 trail mix
Wednesday (repeat Monday)
- Thursday (repeat Tuesday)
*Once we run out of smoothies, use leftover items from the week, trail mix, and/or cheese sticks
Fueling Station Staff Policies/Procedures:
- Each athlete gets one item for free each day.
- Check each athlete off on the roster following each visit for the day.
- Closet door to remain locked at all times.
- Can alternate shifts and get coverage but must provide 24 hours’ notice.
- Two people will be on shift at all times. One person works the computer, and the other hands out product.
• Open and Closing: Before the shift, check inventory and prepare laptop/Excel. At the end of the shift, restock and lock all fridges and cabinets.
• Dress code: Khakis and polos (top can also be Stony Brook University apparel). Must maintain professional appearance.
Hours of Operation: Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.