Sep 1, 2015Stepping it Up
In the year since the NCAA loosened rules on feeding athletes, many schools have upgraded their nutritional offerings. The University of Arkansas has implemented a three-pronged plan that places a premium on convenience and variety.
The following article appears in the September 2015 issue of Training & Conditioning.
When NCAA Division I deregulated restrictions on sports nutrition in April 2014–allowing student-athletes access to unlimited meals and snacks incidental to participation–it was a big victory for collegiate sports dietitians. Celebrations, however, were quickly replaced with a rush to action. With so much sudden freedom to determine how and when to fuel athletes, most athletic departments were eager to revamp their nutrition programs as soon as possible.
That was definitely the case here at the University of Arkansas. We were excited to provide our student-athletes with a fueling program that was comprehensive and specific to their needs. But coming up with a nutrition plan for more than 460 busy athletes is no easy task. Everything from budget to available facility space to individuals’ likes and dislikes needed to be considered. It took a lot of work, communication, and some trial and error, but we eventually devised a three-pronged approach that our coaches, athletes, and administrators support.
Now, with a year under our belt, we’ve come a long way and learned a lot in the process. By all measures, our program has been a success so far, and my hope is that other institutions can benefit from our experience.
WHERE TO BEGIN
The first thing we did when the NCAA approved the feeding bylaw was talk with our student-athletes and coaches about their nutritional needs and preferences. We already had a plan in place to upgrade our dining services for athletes (See “Built for Success” below), so these discussions targeted what we might offer outside of traditional meals–which is the focus of the new rule.
At an all-coaches’ meeting, we opened the floor to coaches and asked what strategies they thought would work best. We also gathered information through one-on-one conversations with members of the various coaching staffs. From these discussions, it was determined that our nutrition options needed to be convenient and portable since the athletes are usually rushing to a class or another activity after a workout and rarely have time to stop and get something to eat. If there’s fuel right in front of them, however, they are likely to take advantage of it.
When we engaged with our student-athletes in a dialogue on fueling, they emphasized the importance of variety in food choices. Therefore, we made a point to create programs that offered multiple options.
After exploring various avenues, we ultimately settled on three programs: RazorFuel, RazorBag, and Red Card. RazorFuel provides student-athletes access to post-workout nutrition in the mornings and afternoons. Through RazorBag, athletes get a bag of snacks each week to fuel them between meals, and Red Card is a debit card they can use twice a week to eat at off-campus restaurants.
Fortunately, the implementation of these new initiatives coincided with revenues derived from the launch of the Southeastern Conference Network. This allowed us to budget more than $1 million in the first year, with more than $2 million budgeted for the programs in 2015-16.
With previous NCAA restrictions on sports nutrition now eliminated and the full support of our administrators, we are now progressing. We know that if we want to take full advantage of this new bylaw, we have to do it right, and we have to do it better than our competitors.
The RazorFuel program provides student-athletes in all 19 of our varsity sports with nutrition opportunities in the morning and afternoon. It allows them to get immediate fuel post-workout, and it’s grab-and-go for convenience.
Here’s how it works: I send an order form to teams every week listing a variety of snack items that athletes can choose from, such as Greek yogurt, breakfast sandwiches/burritos, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the morning, and deli sandwiches, pretzels and hummus, and fresh fruit with string cheese in the afternoon. The athletes choose which items they want for the week, and I relay the orders to our food service provider.
Although the student-athletes can choose exactly what they want from our list, we carefully select which snacks to offer. We aim to balance our athletes’ tastes with foods that offer optimal nutritional value in appropriate portions.
We also put a great emphasis on using the highest-quality products. So if an individual orders a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, we don’t use spreads loaded with high-fructose corn syrup and sugar. Rather, we get them the freshest, most nutritious ingredients we can find.
Originally, we used a local caterer, Elite Catering, to make these snacks, and my fellow dietitian and I delivered them to our athletic facilities. Recently, our new full-service dining facility has taken over the task of food prep, and our athletes get their RazorFuel snacks through a walk-up window in this centrally located building.
IN THE BAG
Within the RazorBag program, student-athletes receive a reusable grocery bag each week filled with 10 to 15 healthy, nonperishable snacks. Athletes can keep their bags at home, in their cars, or in the locker room–wherever works best for them.
The point of the RazorBag initiative is to give athletes healthy between-meal fueling options that are accessible throughout the day. If they have classes all afternoon and don’t get a break for lunch, they can grab snacks from their RazorBags in the morning and throw them into their backpacks. It’s also great for student-athletes who live off-campus because it ensures they have the opportunity to access nutritious snacks at home. At the end of each week, the athletes return their empty bags to me, and I fill them up for the following week.
Pistachios, fresh fruit, peanut butter crackers, and dark chocolate-covered almonds are just a few examples of the snacks provided in the bags. Recently, we also started including items that help with recovery, such as tart cherries and dried fruit. We make a point of educating the teams about the specific benefits of these foods, so they know to eat them after a workout or practice.
We make every effort to customize the bags to each student-athlete. Of course, we take into account any food allergies, and we encourage athletes to let us know if they dislike certain items. They can also swap items with teammates. A few squads form community piles in their locker rooms. This collective approach helps provide student-athletes with multiple choices to match individual taste preferences, while helping to minimize food waste.
Out of all our new nutritional programs, RazorBag is the most labor intensive to execute. We place a weekly order at a local grocery store, and then a courier company delivers the pallets of snacks to our facility. Once we get the food on campus, we round up as many volunteers as possible from our dietetics program to fill the bags.
The number of volunteers we have determines how long it takes to get the bags filled. If we have 10 volunteers or more, everybody grabs a specific snack, and we can knock out all the bags in an hour. But if we have fewer volunteers, we split the bags up by athletic team and have two or three people tackle one team at a time. Once the bags are filled, we deliver them to each squad’s facility and distribute them in athletes’ lockers.
OUT TO EAT
After the NCAA deregulated feeding, our football team began using a voucher program where players had a set amount of money to spend at local restaurants each week. It was a successful venture, so when upgrading the rest of our nutrition plan, we brought other sports on board, and that eventually led us to Red Card.
The Red Card Meal Plan, developed by a Wisconsin-based company, supplies student-athletes with preloaded debit cards for popular restaurants. They have the option of using a Red Card app on their phones, as well. Currently, seven area restaurants accept the Red Card: Chipotle, Qdoba, Schlotzky’s, Firehouse Subs, The Green Submarine, The Flying Burrito, and McAlister’s Deli. The athletes choose which restaurants to patronize, and we trust them to make healthy choices that fall within the limits of provided on the preloaded card. It gives our athletes another flexible option to add variety to their meal plan, and our off-campus athletes love it.
Another benefit of the Red Card program not initially anticipated is that it has prompted athletes from various Arkansas teams to go out to eat with each other. When I run weekly transaction reports, I’m pleased to see how many different teams are at certain restaurants at the same time. Some of our athletes are also very loyal customers. We have a few that go to the same restaurant at the same time each week.
As with any new undertaking, implementing the RazorFuel, RazorBag, and Red Card programs was not without its challenges. The biggest was figuring out the logistics.
Distributing the RazorFuel snacks to each athletic facility in a timely fashion was a bit hectic in the beginning, as teams would often want their items delivered at the same time in the mornings and afternoons. My nutritionist colleague and I thought we could handle this, but by the time we packed our cars, drove to each facility, found parking, unloaded, and drove to the next facility, we were often running well behind schedule when we finished.
Our solution was to drop off both the morning and afternoon snacks at the same time, and well before workouts ended. This cut the delivery time in half and was not as hectic. We figured out ways to keep cold foods chilled or brought only foods not requiring refrigeration.
The challenge with implementing the Red Card program has been bringing more restaurants on board. Corporate offices often won’t allow their local chains to participate because of the small transaction fees that Red Card charges and the relatively small sales amount associated with each purchase. When I encounter this resistance, I speak to the restaurant’s manager about the benefits of gaining additional daily patrons. I emphasize that regardless of the transaction fees, the business will make money in the long run. So far, this strategy has worked well, and we’re in talks to sign up four or five additional restaurants for our athletes.
There was also a slight concern in the beginning that the new programs would lose their luster after a few months, and our student-athletes would no longer utilize each to its fullest potential. To be proactive, I made sure to maintain an open line of communication with our athletes and coaches to remind them of the fueling options.
In addition, we varied the offerings so there was always something new to try, and we worked to find solutions for athletes who weren’t using the programs. For example, some told us they didn’t take advantage of RazorFuel each morning because they didn’t like to eat breakfast that early in the day. Further conversations revealed that many of them were willing to eat something in the morning, but they didn’t like the options we had available. As soon as we found items to fit their needs, they became morning RazorFuel regulars.
Beyond fueling our athletes, there were other benefits to implementing the RazorFuel, RazorBag, and Red Card programs. One perk has been forming great partnerships with a lot of different groups. For instance, we collaborate often with food service providers, both those on campus and in surrounding Fayetteville, which has led to some nice relationships. We feel that we are all working together to prevent food waste and enhance athlete satisfaction.
It’s also been great to partner with coaches in the planning and implementation of our new nutritional programs. They were on board from the beginning, and as the programs got rolling, they provided feedback on our offerings. Their suggestions allowed us to cater directly to the teams’ preferences.
The success of a program is dependent upon constant communication between all who are involved. I respect everything our coaches do with their teams, and I make sure they know I’m eager to help them achieve their team goals in any way I can. Overall, the RazorFuel, RazorBag, and Red Card programs have been a wonderful collaborative effort for our athletic department, and I’m excited to help them continue to grow.
BUILT FOR SUCCESS
One month before the NCAA passed the bylaw allowing Division I student-athletes access to unlimited nutrition, the University of Arkansas broke ground on the Jerry and Gene Jones Family Student-Athlete Success Center (JSAC), and it officially opened this fall. Although not a direct result of deregulated feeding, the JSAC is helping us more efficiently provide our athletes with the benefits of the new sports nutrition opportunities.
In addition to offering academic, personal, and professional development services, the JSAC houses a full-service nutrition center for student-athletes. Its staff ensures that our Razorback athletes receive the fuel they need to succeed academically and athletically. There is also a walk-up window where athletes can get their RazorFuel snacks.
The performance kitchen does more than simply provide fuel, however. It gives us an opportunity to educate our athletes about healthy eating habits through cooking classes and sports nutrition seminars. The how-to instruction provided during these sessions will help them carry proper nutritional practices into their lives beyond college.