Stanford relishes a new dining experience

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Once upon a time, Nneka Ogwumike held the title of "food ambassador."

There was no sash, no tiara to go with that title, just the privilege of representing her fellow student-athletes when it came to choosing the menus for team training table meals at Jimmy V's Sports Café inside the Stanford athletic facility.

Her reign, however, has come to an end.

"My services are no longer needed," the Cardinal senior standout said.

Instead, the menu and the venue have changed with the start of the new quarter.

In the old days, the athletes would head to Jimmy V's following their practices and sit down together for a quiet, athletes-only team meal, ordering directly off the menu.

Now they head to the bustling Arrillaga Family Dining Hall Commons, located in the heart of the Stanford campus.

Students mix with student-athletes at dinner, choosing from a large salad bar featuring organic ingredients, seasonal vegetables and whole grains, as well as soups, sandwiches and pizza.

Tables around the upstairs dining hall are full, with large television screens showing an NBA game between the L.A. Clippers and the Dallas Mavericks on this particular Wednesday night, a little more than a week since school returned to session after the winter break.

There are chairs and couches downstairs beyond the entrance, with students engaged in study groups, and a large glass-enclosed study room for those who prefer quiet, all within view of large video screens advocating the benefits of "performance dining."

Athletes get their own specially prepared meals at Arrillaga Commons. They walk to a counter at the dining hall to pick up their entrées, assembled on the spot. Wednesday's meal was breaded tilapia on top of drizzled chimichurri sauce, accompanied by a neat scoop of brown rice and a salad of portobello mushrooms.

On previous nights, the players have been served salmon and sweet potatoes, kale and risotto, grass-fed prime rib and chicken curry.

They are offered one entrée choice per night and can also eat from the hall's other selections.

"It's a really good change," senior Lindy La Rocque said. "They've put a lot of thought into our meals. And they've put a lot of effort into presentation. I think they want us to feel like it's not just a dining hall meal, that it's an entrée. Very similar to going out to a restaurant."

Stanford players arrive at the dining hall starting at nearly 7:30 p.m., following practice. They head upstairs, passing members of the volleyball, tennis and gymnastics teams on the stairs, get their dinners and spread out to sit at various tables throughout the hall.

Ogwumike is sitting with her sister Chiney and guards Toni Kokenis and La Rocque. To put it simply, plates are being cleaned.

"It's not been hard to adjust," Nneka said. "Everything's been good."

Three of the freshmen, Bonnie Samuelson, Erica Payne and Jasmine Camp, sit together.

"I'm not a big fish eater, but this is really good," Samuelson said, finishing off her tilapia.

"It's a switch-up, but it's good," Camp said. "It's a surprise every night. The prime rib [on Monday] has been everybody's favorite so far, I think."

Junior Mikaela Ruef confessed to having a bit of skepticism at first.

"The best part is that the meal is so pretty. It's like going to a five-star restaurant," Ruef said. "If all healthy food tasted like this, I'd eat a lot more of it."

Strength and conditioning coach Susan Borchardt said most of the players have been "open" to the change.

"There are some people who are more picky than others, and there have been a couple of meals where people are saying, 'Whoa, what is this?' and they aren't quite sure," Borchardt said. "But it's one of those things that they will get used to. I think most of them have enjoyed it so far. And if they don't like something on a given night, they have options."

The concept is called "performance-based dining," and it is the brainchild of Brandon Marcello, the university's director of sports performance.

It was about two years ago that Marcello began rethinking the way the athletic department was feeding its athletes.

"Training table isn't done as good as it could be done," Marcello said. "I looked at performance-based dining -- has anyone ever done this? What if we geared this specifically to the student-athlete? It just makes sense."

He took his idea to a valued counselor, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is a professor on campus and an ardent athletic department supporter.

Rice referred him to Shirley Evert, the vice provost for residential dining. Marcello had a voicemail on his machine from Evert by the time he got back to his office from visiting with Rice. He met with Evert and other university staff, and they decided to move forward.

"We knew there was a new dining hall ready to go online, and we decided to make it a performance-based dining hall," Marcello said.

A committee including nutritionists, sustainability experts and the university's executive chefs worked on menus.

"We had the science backed behind it to say, 'This is what we should be feeding our student-athletes,'" Marcello said.

The menu is built around natural anti-inflammatories, antioxidants and organic foods. It is intended to achieve a nutritional balance between proteins, complex carbohydrates and fruits and vegetables.

Natural anti-inflammatories include ingredients such as turmeric, cinnamon and ginger.

Marcello said it was not a hard sell for either the coaches or the athletes.

"I think everybody understood that the way we've done it before was just adequate," he said. "Knowing the hard work it takes for the student-athletes to get here, we didn't feel like it was fair to drop the ball in any aspect of their training. The athletes, these are Stanford kids. If you explain to them why we are doing it, they get on board pretty quickly.

"Nutrition can make a good athlete great and a great athlete good. Are they going to feel a noticeable difference? I don't know if they will. I think they might feel it when they go back to an old diet and then you realize how much healthier eating has manifested itself."

"Having been here for three years, I wish we would have had this my freshman year," La Rocque said.

The Stanford players already have gotten plenty of education about nutrition. Many of them kept food diaries over the summer.

Menus for their hotel meals on the road have been tweaked -- substituting berries and wheat germ for sugary desserts, trading out ranch dressing for balsamic vinaigrettes.

"We are doing more whole grains, wheat French toast and wheat waffles and pancakes," said coach Tara VanDerveer, who hasn't been to the new dining hall yet but was planning to go there next week to see it for herself.

"We are really focusing a lot more in nutrition this year than in the past. A lot of kids come here and they've eaten a lot of fast food and things that maybe aren't as healthy. But our team has really embraced the changes."

Borchardt has gotten the players to think differently about snacking, even when they are just grabbing a bite in the airport.

"String cheese, yogurt, nuts, granola, that kind of thing," Camp said. "It's just about making different choices."

But there are times when kids will be kids, when the choices involve fast food and sweet, caffeinated drinks.

"If they are going to have a burger here, they are going to have grass-fed beef," Marcello said. "So, life is good."