NCAA changes rules on athletes’ meals

Published in FSD Update

The recent ruling by the NCAA that student-athletes in Division I institutions will be allowed unlimited meals and snacks has been met with everything from consternation to puzzlement from foodservice directors. Some are concerned about the effect it could have on their current operations, while others believe it could benefit their departments.

In late April, the NCAA altered its approach to feeding student-athletes, giving colleges the option of providing unlimited meal service to all athletes. Previously, scholarship athletes received meal plans as part of their scholarship package, and training table meals only—usually one meal a day to athletes while their sports are in season—were provided for non-scholarship athletes.

“NCAA members decided to deregulate the rules around meals to improve student-athlete well-being,” says NCAA spokeswoman Michelle Brutlag Hosick. “Members [also] believe the change is another step toward eliminating unnecessary rules and removing the campus monitoring associated with those rules. Athletic department officials may exercise their discretion in providing meals and snacks without fearing second-guessing by NCAA staff.”

Many operators FSD spoke with either were unaware of the ruling or haven’t communicated with their schools’ athletic directors.

“We have not finalized our plans for the upcoming academic year with Stanford Athletics,” says Eric Montell, executive director of Stanford Dining at Stanford University, in Palo Alto, Calif. “I would anticipate knowing more within the next month.”

But at those universities where the issue has been discussed, or at least examined, opinions are mixed.

“This is something that’s going to be very costly to schools,” says Dawn Aubrey, associate director of housing and dining services at the University of Illinois, in Champaign-Urbana. Noting that the NCAA rule is merely a guideline, not a mandate, Aubrey adds, “It’s one of those things that schools will be participating in because they simply need to keep themselves competitive.”

Aubrey has met with the athletic department and drafted a plan that would provide 18 meals per week, plus snacks, for the university’s 500 athletes—triple the number of athletes that were previously being covered.

“The 18 meals are breakfast, lunch and dinner Monday through Thursday, breakfast and lunch on Friday, and brunch and dinner Saturday and Sunday,” she says. “We actually are going to be feeding them [in the Colonnades Club] at Memorial Stadium, and the foods that they are being served are being closely monitored by the sports nutritionist. So this is a really big deal.”

Aubrey estimates that the new program could cost dining services “around $1.5 to $1.6 million,” adding that the Department of Intercollegiate Athletics would reimburse her department.
Staff that previously worked at the Varsity Room—the training table room—will be shifted to the stadium, and Aubrey will add employees there “until we know what kind of participation we expect.”

Randy Lait, senior director of hospitality services at North Carolina State University, in Raleigh, doesn’t expect the new rules to have a dramatic effect “because of the number of students who are [non-scholarship] who are already buying meal plans.”

“We have 400 to 500 athletes already [in the existing athletic dining hall], so we’re talking about 100 more at the training table meal,” Lait says. “We’re already well-positioned for that.”

He adds that because the rules are voluntary, each school will likely handle their programs differently.

“I think it’s going to be a challenge for schools to provide unlimited specialized food to all of their student athletes,” he suggests. “I think you’ll see some schools do a blend, where perhaps they’ll offer a joint meal for all, like one per day or a certain number per week, but I don’t think they’re going to provide unlimited meals.”

Lait believes that the rules are beneficial. “I think it gives us more of an opportunity to provide healthy and nutritious meals and having more access to healthier food is a good thing.”

At the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Athletic Director Tim Taggart says his department’s approach will be to do a continental breakfast for all student athletes five days a week.

“We’ll look at it again next summer and decide if we want to make any changes or increase the meals,” he says. “I would say 95% [of schools] do not have the money to feed student athletes all the time.”

Nancy Keller, director of dining services at Iowa State University, in Ames, says she looks at the new rules as a way to generate additional revenue for her operation. Since most athletes are already on a meal plan, she has proposed an add-on to the athletic department to cover late-night service.

“We’ve suggested giving athletes a set dollar amount per day to use in our late-night operations,” Keller explains. “The student would have to use the money that night or lose it. Whatever was spent would be charged back to the athletic department.”

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