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Feeding the pros

Student mixing milkshakes

From rangy punters to larger-than-life linemen, no sport features a wider array of body types than professional football.


Juggling the nutritional requirements for such a diverse array of athletes is a constant challenge for NFL team nutritionists and dining managers. Lightning-fast receivers looking to cultivate lean mass break bread — or, more accurately, sip protein shakes — alongside mammoth centers who need to pack on weight so they can earn their keep shoving around 300-pound opponents. Crafting meal plans that include the right macronutrient ratios and calorie totals is a delicate balancing act that pays off when players are able to perform at their peaks on game day.


A group of students from the University of North Florida’s Flagship Nutrition and Dietetic Program is learning firsthand about the unique dietary requirements of the pros as nutrition interns with the Jacksonville Jaguars. They’ve mixed shakes, prepared meals and promoted healthy dining choices to keep the players fed and fueled for the gridiron.


This beneficial partnership started in June when Jackie Shank and Dr. Claudia Sealey-Potts from UNF met with Tim Hoch, executive chef with Levy Restaurants, the company that handles food service for EverBank Field, and Maren Jensen, team dining manager, to discuss integrating UNF nutrition students into the sports nutrition experience. They came to an agreement that a team of undergraduate students would assist with concessions and food prep around the stadium during special events, and a select group of undergrads and graduate students would be able to work behind the scenes and be a part of the team dining process.


“This opportunity to work in the Jaguars dining area brings to life everything they’re learning in the classroom,” Shank said. “This is especially applicable during our students’ senior years, where they’re learning medical nutrition therapy, assessing unique nutritional needs and preparing to work more with patients. The meal plans for these athletes are highly specialized and consist of upward of 5,000 calories a day. Seeing the application of that in real life is an experience many nutrition students won’t forget.”


Hoch, EverBank Field’s executive chef, said he needed staff members with keen nutritional senses who could work in different areas of the stadium while being able to handle the ever-changing schedule. That’s what led him to UNF’s Flagship Nutrition and Dietetics program. Hoch’s staff provides breakfast, lunch and dinner to all of the Jaguars. The UNF students were primarily tasked with food service in between meals, including building wraps and salads in designated action stations and mixing ingredients for post-workout recovery shakes.


“They’re active and engaged and really good at what they do,” Hoch said. “It’s a great opportunity for them to see a different side of nutrition. You could go work at a school, or a retirement home or a hospital, but an NFL stadium offers way more opportunity. It hasn’t been a hard sell. UNF referred us six or eight students with our initial group, and we hope to keep this partnership going for as long as we can.”


Other UNF students are tasked with manning public food stations of the stadium during game day, providing gluten-free grub and other special requests to patrons. Keeping hungry people well fed at a football stadium is a challenging and labor-intensive process. The facility runs on an event-driven calendar — 500 to 600 staff members are required during game days or concerts. Far fewer staffers are needed on off-days.


“These UNF students have really helped us fill in the gaps and ensure high-quality service throughout the stadium,” Hoch said.


One UNF graduate nutrition student, Kelsey Korey, is also in the Jaguars internship mix. She had previously worked hospital rotations where she learned the basics of balancing the nutritional needs of her patients with the types of foods that would satisfy their menu requests. Now, Korey finds herself doing that for an entire football team. Her main task includes planning and preparing nearly 50 shakes to be served when the team returns to the locker room after practice. The nutritional content of each shake is planned down to the calorie so each player is getting enough fuel for practice and workouts while also satisfying their weight goals. Some want to bulk up to protect from crushing tackles, while others want to slim down to speed past defenders. Each player has a slightly different request — some prefer almond milk to traditional dairy — but most prefer a liberal serving of strawberries in their recovery shakes. One unifying characteristic is that each beverage is chock full of protein.


“That’s the major building block for them — protein,” Korey said. “They work so hard and need to build and repair muscle. Their shakes are loaded with protein, and every meal they have has a source of lean protein as the focal point.”


Team Dining Manager Maren Jensen said the UNF interns have been great about anticipating the varied nutritional needs of the players. Some are more health-conscious than others, and the students have learned to cater to the menu requests of every member of the team.


“Every player has something different,” Jensen said. “There are different mindsets from veterans to rookies. The younger guys might not be as worried about what they’re eating, while the vets might want to monitor everything they’re putting in their bodies. The biggest challenge is to make everyone happy and still make sure they get the nutrition they need. If we can find the middle ground where we hit the nutrition mark and get them eating the foods they like at the same time, then we’ve done a great job.


Gaining this type of practical work experience with a professional sports team will be a major resume builder for all of the UNF nutrition students involved in the Jaguar internship program, said Sealey-Potts. Some of her students have worked with the Orlando Magic and other sports teams across Florida, but those internship posts popped up on a case-by-case basis. She said she’d like to cultivate an internship pipeline with the Jaguars in which dozens of UNF students would be able to experience the fast-paced world of professional sports nutrition.


“These students have the opportunity to work with professional athletes — maybe even network with them,” Sealey-Potts said. “They’ll see how they should be eating to maintain the energy, strength and speed to perform on the field. This type of first-hand knowledge is irreplaceable, and our students will have some fantastic qualifications and job skills once they finish their internships.”


And, internships like this one are part of the hallmark of a UNF education, said Dr. Jeffrey Coker, dean of undergraduate studies and professor of history.


“Students at UNF are provided real-world opportunities like this in almost every discipline, giving them the ability to not only garner hands-on learning skills and be a part of a truly immersive experience, but provide them with opportunities to develop critical thinking skills employers seek. Internships, combined with an excellent education, help make UNF students highly employable upon graduation.”


Creating a diet plan to help boost athletic performance was nothing new to Eleanor Baker, a senior nutrition and dietetics major and member of the UNF cross country team. She’d tinkered with her own diet for years, looking to find the right fuel to help her excel in cross country and track, especially her favorite event — the steeplechase. However, she found herself in uncharted nutritional waters when she started interning with the Jaguars and took a look at the heaping plates loaded with lean protein, complex carbs and vegetables.


“As a student-athlete myself, I know how to train and eat for the results I want,” Baker said. “But these guys are definitely eating a whole lot more than a 120-pound runner. It’s a different world, and thanks to that, I’m always learning something new.”


Working in tandem with Jensen, Baker has a vital part in the team dining process, making protein shakes for the more than 90 players on the team and keeping the recovery stations stocked with quick eats like veggie burgers, salad toppings and other nutritional building blocks. She said she’s learned a lot about the different nutritional requirements of the players. For those looking to pack on some more muscle, an extra scoop of almond butter here and a liberal dose of carbohydrates there can help them put on more size in a healthy way. Regardless of poundage, Baker said there is one menu item that every player appreciates.


“They all love taco day,” she said. “You might think professional athletes would want something fancier. Nope. Taco day is the best.”