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Penn State University develops program to help dance marathon participants.

For many students at Pennsylvania State University, the Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon—better known as THON—is an event that requires an entire semester’s worth of energy. A yearlong fundraiser dedicated to fighting pediatric cancer, THON culminates in a 46-hour dance marathon where 733 Penn State students didn’t sit, sleep or rest—they just danced.

That level of physical exertion requires a special diet and nutrition plan, and fortunately, Penn State Food Services was there to help out. “The students who dance at THON are altering their lifestyles; they’re not sleeping or eating for an extended period of time,” says Jim Richard, associate director of residential dining at University Park. “It’s hard to do that without a little organization, and we wanted to help.”

Although students have been dancing for THON since 1973, this year’s dance marathon—which took place Feb. 21 through 23—was the first year that Penn State Food Services had a specific THON committee. According to Richard, getting involved with THON was a natural fit for Food Services’ overall mission. “It really grew out of a desire to take care of our guests,” he says. “THON is a huge part of being a Penn State student, and all students dine with us. We wanted to support them.”

Richard also says that the department wanted to help make it easy for THON volunteers to choose foods that would keep them going during the event. One of the first things the committee did was label a selection of food choices—both in the all-you-care-to-eat dining commons and the campus c-stores—as “THON Approved” so that students could readily identify the best choices to make. Vetted by Culinary Support Services, these foods were caffeine free, low in sugar and contained high amounts of quality carbohydrates to keep up the dancers’ energy reserves.

In the same way, the committee also labeled certain foods as “THON Recovery” so that students would know which foods would help their bodies rebuild post-marathon. The recovery foods included items such as string cheese, hummus and pretzels, nuts and Greek yogurt—all items high in protein and amino acids. The committee also included recovery drinks like chocolate milk and coconut water.

Richard says that the THON labels increased sales of these items both before and after THON weekend, especially in the c-stores. “We saw a huge uptick in how quickly these items moved,” he says. “The labels were a great identifying factor for students that took the pain out of figuring out which choices to make.”

In addition to the labels, foodservices THON committee also put together vendor-supported snack packs for moralers—student volunteers who help keep the dancers fueled—to pick up during the weekend. The snack packs were nutrition-focused and included Greek yogurt, water, fruit and pistachios. According to Richard, the snack packs ran out quickly, since moralers could walk into the c-stores and find nutritious items for the dancers without having to shop.

Food Services also wanted to make sure it found ways to recognize its student employees who were involved with THON. Dancers received 7-foot banners signed by their peers as a reminder of their support, and I-THON buttons were distributed to foodservices student employees who volunteered with THON in any capacity.

According to Megan Renaut, Penn State junior and THON hospitality director, THON’s partnership with Food Services was a natural fit. “It was one of those moments where you think, ‘Why haven’t we been doing this all along?’” she asks. “They had so many amazing ideas, and we couldn’t be more grateful.”

Renaut also says that all of the initiatives Food Services put into place this year were well-received and well-utilized by students, especially the portable snack packs. “It was a great boost for dancers between meals,” she adds.

Richards considers the partnership a success as well, and he’s looking forward to what future involvement will bring. “We had a great first year, and we’ll definitely be looking to raise the bar,” he says.

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