BOULDER — When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, virtually every operation in the University of Colorado Athletic Department had to undergo significant changes.
Social distancing. Small groups. Enhanced sanitation procedures. Testing.
All those procedures and more had to be incorporated into the department’s daily routine when CU student-athletes were first allowed back on campus in mid-June.
But while every department had to undergo significant changes, there was one that could not take shortcuts or reduce its services in any way, shape or form.
Student-athletes still had to eat — and CU’s Performance Nutrition Department still had to make sure a process existed that would ensure every student-athlete was not only eating, but maintaining a solid nutritional plan at the same time.
The Buffs’ PND has met that challenge in every respect.
Understand, the task of feeding 250 to 300 student-athletes on a daily basis while maintaining nutrition standards is never easy. It requires providing healthy food that tastes good while also meeting a variety of nutritional needs for the entire spectrum of student-athletes (think everyone from a 110-pound cross country runner to a 330-pound defensive lineman).
But under normal circumstances, meals are served in a “fueling station” manner — a variety of foods served buffet style in a central dining hall.
The pandemic, however, changed everything. Student-athletes gathering to eat in a centralized location was out of the question. Buffet-style serving stations were impossible.
But student-athletes still had to eat — which meant Associate AD for Performance Nutrition Laura Anderson had to develop a plan that would meet all protocols and still provide nutritious and tasty meals for the Buffaloes.
“It was challenging, to say the least,” Anderson said. “Nothing about our operation was set up to operate like we’re currently operating. Individual meals, curbside delivery, orders by phone — we had to change virtually everything.”
But Anderson’s team — emphasis on “team” — has not only met the challenge, it has produced a highly successful program that is keeping every Buff fueled at high performance and nutrition standards.
As of last week, before CU students returned for the beginning of the fall semester, PND had served more than 12,000 meals over the summer. Then, on Monday’s first day of classes, they hit an all-time high, providing 435 meals to student-athletes. Every meal is individually prepared after being ordered from that day’s menu, then packaged and set up for curbside pickup at the Champions Center. Anderson estimates they will soon be serving 500 individual meals per day.
It is not, Anderson stressed, how many other schools are coping with the situation. Some universities are providing a daily catered takeout service with no menu options while others are preparing one standard meal that goes to every student-athlete, regardless of specific needs.
Those types of operations offer no choice and very little nutritional control and variety for the athletes.
“We’re customizing and we’re doing everything specifically for the athletes — and that’s how it should be,” Anderson said. “There are places where there are no menu choices and the athletes don’t like it and they end up not eating there. Here, we’re able to provide some options and that allows us to continue a good, personalized nutrition plan that our athletes like.”
The daily menu includes some regular “standards,” as well as a variety of items that changes daily — everything from tacos to couscous to salmon to a steak gyro platter. Anderson also includes some “fun” foods on occasion, such burgers, fries and wings.
And, because the PND team sees each individual order, they are able to track nutritional needs and provide guidance.
“We know which kids are eating good, following their nutrition plan and are making good choices,” Anderson said. ” And then maybe one day a week, they might get some fries or wings — it’s still quality food, but it’s a little different. It’s been fascinating for us because most of them are making really good choices.”
The PND’s pandemic operation didn’t come together overnight. When athletic activities were shut down in mid-March, Anderson and her team knew student-athletes would return at some point, and she knew she would have to develop a new process to make sure they were provided with the proper nutrition.
But what Anderson didn’t know is how long they would have to develop that new operation.
“When we first started working on it in April, we didn’t know when we’d be open again because the Pac-12 kept changing when student-athletes would be allowed back,” she said. “At one point, Rick (George, CU Athletic director) was saying to be ready for the first of May, then the middle of May. My team was meeting a couple days a week for about three hours at a time. We talked through what the process would be like, how we would adjust each position within the kitchen and how to make sure we were staying within the protocols and guidelines that were presented to us.”
The PND team did its best to have a plan in place for an early May opening if necessary. They even conducted “dress rehearsals,” with a team member phoning in an order and then having the order prepared and delivered curbside, ready for pickup.
When student-athletes were finally allowed to return in mid-June, the PND team was ready for business. That included a reorganized kitchen, a call center to manage orders and generate tickets, an expo area where individual meals are actually put together, and a delivery process that gets the meals to curbside for pickup.
The process has proven to be a hit with student-athletes, as evidenced by the steadily increasing number of meals produced.
“The biggest thing is it has to taste good,” Anderson said. “If it doesn’t taste good, the athletes aren’t going to eat it.”
While developing the new process no doubt provided some big challenges, Anderson said it has also provided some benefits.
“Once we come full circle on this and we change back to a different operating style, we will have learned a lot,” she said. “There are actually some good things that have come out of this. Some of this has been so successful, and one of those things is that personalized touch. The athletes still feel like they have some control over what they’re choosing to go into their meal box and we’re able to provide guidance in the process.”
That guidance even extends to the occasional individualized note included in the meal box that provides nutrition suggestions. Because the PND staff sees every meal order, they know what each athlete is eating and can provide suggestions on how to improve nutrition in order to improve performance.
“This way definitely provides more intricate data,” Anderson said. “It’s all saved and you can go back and see what every athlete is eating and how it might work for their nutrition plan. We can provide advice or add something extra to their meal box to make sure they’re getting some variety. It’s personalized nutrition, maybe even more than in normal circumstances.”
George has lauded the PND’s efforts on a regular basis throughout the summer in conference calls with the media. It is one example of how the entire athletic department has not only met the challenges produced by the pandemic, but has made sure the support for student-athletes has not taken a step back in any capacity.
Anderson admits the process is time-consuming and takes its toll. Her team wears personal fitness devices, and some members have logged as many as 17,000 steps in a day.
But, she said, the success of the program has been worth it.
“It’s exhausting — it really is,” Anderson said. “But I would also say at some point every day, we’re having a good time. We have a great team and that’s what makes the difference. Our team has really bought into the process with the goal of making this work. We were always close, but I think this brought us even closer together because we’ve had that one goal in mind of providing quality meals that follow a nutrition plan — and meals that our athletes will eat.”