May 15, 2019
Seeds of Change
Susan Kundrat

Have your athletes expressed an interest in sustainable food practices? If so, it might be time to add some eco-friendly elements to your sports nutrition program.

The article appeared in the March 2016 issue of Training and Conditioning.

There’s no doubt that sustainability is a hot topic these days, and it’s made a significant impact on the way we feed ourselves. In fact, the International Food Information Council Foundation’s 2015 Food and Health Survey revealed that nearly two-thirds of Americans thought about whether their foods and beverages were produced in environmentally sustainable ways over the past year.

Today’s college campuses are leaders in this movement, and student-athletes can and do play their part. Whether it’s by eating locally grown fruits and vegetables or recycling on road trips, more and more athletes are aware of how their fueling habits affect the environment.

As the athletic population becomes increasingly eco-friendly, sports dietitians and food service managers will be expected to pursue more sustainable practices. Several universities across the country have already gotten started. As these examples show, every small step forward is a step in the right direction.


One of the biggest trends inspired by the sustainable nutrition movement has been a shift towards eating locally grown fruits and vegetables. Not only does this practice decrease pollution and gas consumption due to food transportation, but it also allows individuals to consume products at their peak of freshness.

Washington State University’s Sports Nutrition Program recently embraced eating locally by forming partnerships with farms in the region, including one on campus. “We source seasonal, certified organic vegetables weekly from the WSU Organic Farm to showcase daily at our training table meals,” says Lindsay Brown, MS, RD, CSSD, LD, Director of Sports Nutrition for Washington State athletics. “We call it our ‘Farm to Fork’ dish. It’s typically a seasonal vegetable side such as sautéed kale, roasted butternut squash, or roasted root vegetables.”

The availability of local products has helped Brown get more athletes to swap out their processed and prepackaged snacks for “real” food. “Our goal is to increase our athletes’ intake of fresh vegetables and fruits,” she says. “We also make many food products in-house so we can control what types of ingredients are going into each recipe.”

The University of Illinois’ dining services places a similar emphasis on providing athletes with locally sourced items. “Currently, 25 percent of our food purchases are local, which we define as within a 100-mile radius of campus,” notes Kelly Boeger, MS, RDN, LDN, Menu Management Dietitian for the University Housing Dining Services at Illinois. “We also use 90 percent of what our Student Sustainable Farm produces. The remaining 10 percent goes to an on-campus farmer’s market.”

If you don’t have a campus or student farm, it doesn’t mean eating locally is off the table. There are a variety of alternative options to pursue.

For instance, Northwestern University Sports Dietitian Katie Knappenberger, MS, RD, CSSD, ATC, feeds 500 athletes each day with the help of a company that focuses on locally grown food. She also encourages eco-friendly nutrition through education. “I utilize social media to inform Northwestern athletes about area farmer’s markets, which are great places to purchase sustainable food,” she says.

If you decide to offer your athletes more local fare, be prepared to face some challenges. The biggest is working around the availability of fruits and vegetables as seasons change. Making appetizing meals with fresh produce year-round requires foresight and a lot of planning.

At Washington State, Brown meets bi-weekly with a sport nutrition manager, two executive chefs, and a general manager to review menus, make adjustments based on the availability of ingredients, and designate their Farm to Fork offerings. She notes that if a short supply of vegetables has them unable to meet the demand for a dish, they may stretch the produce by adding a whole grain. So instead of a side of sautéed kale, they might serve a kale and quinoa salad.

“Each farm will be unique in what they offer, how much, and how often,” Brown says. “There may be times when we can’t get the particular item we asked for, or we may get more or less of something than expected, but to me, it’s totally worth it.”


At Purdue University, Lauren Link, RD, CSSD, Head of Sports Nutrition, recently took the idea of eating locally to a whole new level by constructing the Purdue Student-Athlete Community Garden. Launched in 2015 and located near the school’s athletic facilities, Link has three goals for the project:

• Provide athletes with fresh vegetables to eat

• Educate them on how to garden and grow sustainable food

• Donate extra produce back to the community.

Getting the garden established proved to be an exercise in collaboration. Purdue’s Horticulture Department was a great resource, advising the athletes to plant a few key crops the first year and grow visually appealing, colorful vegetables to draw attention to the garden. In addition, a local supermarket sponsored the project and helped with start-up costs.

During its inaugural year, more than 20 athletes and staff members worked on the garden, with eight sports represented. The biggest challenge in manning it was negotiating the athletes’ busy schedules. Link and her staff offered volunteer slots at different times during the day, several days a week, to ensure as many athletes could take part as possible.

To ensure they fully absorbed the experience, Link explained every step and encouraged active participation from start to finish. Athletes learned how deep to plant specific seeds, how far apart to space them, when to pick certain vegetables, and how to keep their produce fresh.

“Overall, we felt the garden was a great success, as we harvested squash, zucchini, kale, tomatoes, peppers, onions, carrots, peas, and herbs,” says Link. “Vegetables were sampled at our athletic department’s fueling stations, so a wide range of athletes were impacted by the garden’s produce.”

The athletes were also given recipes to incorporate the produce in their cooking at home. “It’s been wonderful to watch athletes introduce new vegetables into their diets and learn how to use them in new ways, such as adding kale to smoothies and soups,” says Link. “In addition, we had a lot of student-athletes who had never cooked zucchini before. We talked them through how to slice it and cook it with a little olive oil, salt, and pepper, or add it to stir fry or chili.”

Beyond benefiting the athletes, the garden made a significant impact on local food banks. Link was able to donate more than 200 pounds of produce to community programs after its first harvest.

She also used the garden to teach Purdue athletes about food insecurity, bringing to light the challenges many face when trying to feed their families. “A lot of our young people don’t realize food insecurity is happening in their own community,” Link says. “We wanted to bring attention to this issue and show our athletes that a little garden can make a big impact.”


Sustainable sports nutrition encompasses more than an awareness of what athletes are putting into their bodies. It’s about decreasing waste program-wide to limit your impact on the environment, as well.

Illinois has embarked on a number of large-scale initiatives to reduce the waste generated by dining services. For instance, it was the first Big 10 university to have trayless dining halls, which saves more than 110,000 gallons of water annually, and decreased food waste from 23.7 ounces to 4.47 ounces per person per day.

In addition, each dining unit at Illinois utilizes LeanPath, a tracking system that monitors pre-consumer food waste-food served but not taken by students. It is weighed and recorded, and that data is then analyzed to find ways to reduce it. One past solution included limiting the number of salad bar toppings toward the end of service to decrease vegetable waste. During its first year, LeanPath diverted 678,255 pounds of food from landfills.

On a smaller scale, Boeger has found lots of little ways to make sure nothing goes to waste at Illinois. The dining halls donate excess food, recycle coffee grounds, send fruit and vegetable scraps to the Sustainable Student Farm for vermicomposting, convert used vegetable oil to bio-diesel for vehicles on campus, and utilize four food digesters that turn all food waste from the dish room into lipid-free greywater.

Even the nitrile gloves worn by food service providers are spared from the landfill. Through a partnership with their manufacturer, the gloves are collected, recycled, and transformed into bicycle racks that dot the Illinois campus.

At Northwestern, Knappenberger is challenging everyone in the athletic department to play a role in decreasing waste on campus. For example, athletes and staff volunteer with the Campus Kitchen Project, a nonprofit that works with high schools and colleges. Participants recover unused food from Northwestern’s cafeterias and repurpose it to prepare meals for needy members of the community.

She is also urging teams to be creative with their recycling. “Our fencing athletes spearheaded a project to recycle the packaging of their performance foods,” Knappenberger says. “They created signage that identified the recycling bins for each type of wrapper. The project is ongoing and an inspiration to other teams.”

Partnering with other organizations can be another strategy. Illinois has signed up with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for the Food Recovery Challenge, which helps university dining facilities track food waste and make goals to reduce it. After registering with the program for a year, schools are eligible to apply for awards. Game Day Challenge is an initiative that schools can take advantage of to reduce waste during athletic events on campus.

Regardless of your situation, the best way to create a sustainable sports nutrition program is by making sustainability a priority. This casts it as less of a challenge and more a part of the athletic department’s culture.

Whether the focus is on sourcing local food, planning and developing campus gardens, or decreasing waste, a myriad of opportunities exist for creating and maintaining sustainable sports nutrition practices. As Brown says, “There is no cookie-cutter approach to becoming a more sustainable food operation. Find what works best for your school and your athletes.”



Food production and transportation can have a huge impact on the environment. Some athletes may try to address this by altering their diet to decrease their carbon footprint. Two popular options include going vegan or vegetarian.

If one of your athletes decides to take a more eco-friendly dietary stance, there are a number of concerns to keep in mind:

• Ensure they are able to continue to meet energy and protein needs on their new nutrition plans. Sometimes, moving to a more restrictive diet makes it difficult to eat enough to fuel effectively.

At the University of Illinois, Kelly Boeger, MS, RDN, LDN, Menu Management Dietitian for the University Housing Dining Services, relies on education for this. “We have an event during National Nutrition Month that highlights ‘flexitarian’ eating, where students are taught about their individual protein needs and how to meet them by eating plant-based foods,” she says. “This event focuses on individual health as well as the health of the planet.”

• Check to make sure the athlete is not using restrictive eating as a façade for a more serious issue, such as disordered eating. For example, cutting out certain foods under the guise of “being healthy” could be a way for athletes to feel comfortable eliminating specific food groups, nutrients, or calories from their diet.

• Make sure athletes can afford a modified diet. Eating sustainably may require special foods that are more expensive.

• Lastly, be sure your athletes meet with the team sports dietitian to get a sound, research-based assessment and personal nutrition plan that best fits their needs for training, performance, and overall health.

Susan Kundrat, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN, is a Clinical Associate Professor of Kinesiology and the Nutritional Sciences Program Director at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She is also a member of the Institute of Urban Agriculture and Nutrition, a collaborative organization that advances sustainable urban agriculture, healthy nutrition practices, and economic development in southeast Wisconsin. She can be reached at: [email protected].

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