Fresno State put a lot of work into developing and funding a training table program to feed its athletes, to provide nutritious, clean fuel to burn in – and help recover from – workouts, practices and games.
When it was started in November 2014, it was seen as an overdue boon for the athletic department and a building block for Bulldogs players, particularly in a football program where player development is crucial to success. It also was considered a must-have since the NCAA earlier that year passed legislation allowing schools to offer unlimited meals and snacks in conjunction with athletics participation.
Most of the Bulldogs’ football rivals in the Mountain West Conference already had some variation of a training table in place.
“I think it’s a differentiator for the elite teams in college football or even the best teams in the non-BCS leagues,” coach Tim DeRuyter had said. “And I think it’s the right thing to do by your players.”
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Now, less than 20 months later, training table has been scrapped after falling short of expectations. The athletic department is working on a new approach that would better serve athletes and be more beneficial, in particular to its football program, than a training table that was not much of a draw.
“We just want to make sure we’re not wasting money and that the kids are getting what they need and what they want,” athletic director Jim Bartko said.
I can say it definitely helped me. It was making sure I ate the right things after we had a hard day of working out and stuff.
Fresno State wide receiver KeeSean Johnson, possibly one of the few mourning the demise of the school’s training-table meal and snack program for its student athletes
The causes of its demise are varied, a mix of changing dynamics for student-athletes and convenience.
After the NCAA passed a measure last year allowing schools to provide athletes with funds to help pay the full costs of attending college, Fresno State in 2015-16 distributed a stipend to those on full scholarship worth $3,500. That, coupled with an increase in room and board costs, put considerably more money in their pockets – nine monthly checks went up $900 to about $1,800 – and allowed student-athletes more options for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks.
A permanent training-table location never could be found, with meals served at the Residence Dining Hall or a conference room in the North Gym. Convenience became an issue, particularly with the football facilities across campus on the other side of Cedar Avenue.
With its history of Title IX investigations and gender-equity issues, Fresno State also ensured that the program was available to all athletes, which only added to logistical problems. Teams practice at various times throughout the day and have changing nutritional needs during the year.
Lack of diversity in menu options, among the reasons so many chose not to eat at the RDH under the previous meal program, also played a role.
“Everywhere I’ve been, when you get late in the semester, everyone can anticipate the next meal,” DeRuyter joked. “If you had roast beef tonight, tomorrow you’re having French dip sandwiches and eventually you’re going to have something covered in gravy.”
The program, which cost between $300,000 and $400,000 a year and was funded through private donations, did help some athletes.
Third-year sophomore wideout KeeSean Johnson, who has put on close to 20 pounds since arriving on campus and could emerge this season as a key playmaker for the Bulldogs, said he went to training table at least three times a week.
“I can say it definitely helped me,” he said. “It was making sure I ate the right things after we had a hard day of working out and stuff.”
But the bottom line is Bulldogs athletes across all sports did not participate much in the program, even though they had paid for the meals, choosing instead to eat that money and on their own.
I know it will probably be better attended than our attempt at training table was last spring – I’m grateful that we made that attempt, but logistically with it being across the street and moving around, it unfortunately was not something our guys would use consistently.
Bulldogs football coach Tim DeRuyter on the school’s plan to try a new approach to providing athletes with healthy menu options
Under the training-table program – and the meal plan offered through the Residence Dining Hall that it replaced – athletes on full scholarship had money deducted from their monthly scholarship checks to cover the institutional cost of the meals.
“Training table, when I first got here, it was a big deal,” Bartko said. “It was something we raised money for, but I think nowadays all across the country, with the cost of attendance (stipend) and getting bigger checks, kids weren’t using it as much. We were having 200 sign up, and 80 were showing up. We talked to all of our coaches and said, ‘What do you think?’
“Most of them said with the kids getting the bigger checks, they have their own diets. … Some people practice in the morning and don’t want to have breakfast. Some people want to have dinner. So it is better for them to just use their own money and not take the money out of their checks and not do it.”
When the fall semester starts, Bartko said, most full scholarship athletes will not have money deducted to pay for meals, which will provide more freedom at mealtime.
Feeding a football team is different – much like the sport, a game of adjustments.
Fresno State, which will hold meetings and practice in the mornings this season rather than the afternoons, is working to have a meal brought in for brunch/lunch after practice and other ways to ensure players get proper nutrition. The healthy snacks program, available to all student-athletes throughout the day at the Meyers Center, will remain intact.
We don’t want them eating fast food – we want them eating the right food, and we have a nutritionist who will guide them. … It’s a matter of finding the best fit for them.
Fresno State athletic director Jim Bartko
“In my ideal world, I’d love to provide one meal a day for our guys that’s a legitimate meal,” DeRuyter said. “We have fruit and bagels and nuts and stuff all day long for them, Muscle Milk, chocolate milk. If we can get them one additional meal and then one meal on their own so that they’re not locked in to dining hall food all the time … we’ll see how that goes.
“I know it will probably be better attended than our attempt at training table was last spring – I’m grateful that we made that attempt, but logistically with it being across the street and moving around, it unfortunately was not something our guys would use consistently.”
DeRuyter said he is pleased with the way the Bulldogs have handled their nutritional needs with so many passing on training table.
“I think our guys are making good food choices, and (nutritionist) Kim Tirapelle does a great job educating our guys,” he said.
But Fresno State will continue to look for the best ways to serve student-athletes – without looking back.
“When we started (training table), the NCAA didn’t have cost of attendance (stipends) in place,” Bartko said. “You can’t look back and say it was a dumb decision, because back then it was the right decision. But now, they’re getting more money and they can use it how they want to.
“It’s something that we just have to figure out. Look at it for a year, evaluate it for a year, and figure out what we want to do. We don’t want them eating fast food – we want them eating the right food, and we have a nutritionist who will guide them, and we’ll still have pregame meals and postgame meals and do the right thing. It’s a matter of finding the best fit for them.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada