By Millie Hogue
The Razorback Reporter
On Thursday afternoons Ariel Voskamp has exactly 20 minutes to make it from pole-vaulting practice to her chemistry lab across campus. Exhausted from training, she has to force herself to make the uphill trek to class, but however grueling that might be, Voskamp said there’s usually something else at the forefront of her mind — food.
“By the time I finish practice I’m starving,” she said. “I don’t like to eat within two hours before, so when I get out I haven’t eaten in about five and a half hours and I’ve worked out really hard.”
A year ago, Voskamp might have had to suffer through that hunger until she made it home, but a University of Arkansas program called Razorfuel has begun providing snacks tailored to student-athletes and given to them after practices and team gatherings.
An NCAA rule change in April opened the door for programs like “Razorfuel,” launching a new era for Division I universities and their athletes. Athletic departments can now provide “unlimited meals and snacks in conjunction with students’ athletic participation,” according to the NCAA website.
UA sports nutritionists work with Elite Catering in Fayetteville to implement the new rule, and athletes are reaping the benefits. Razorfuel provides roughly 450 student-athletes with two snacks a day, available seven days a week.
“It’s a big stress relief for them,” said Philip Lewis, a graduate assistant in sports nutrition about Razorfuel. “It’s one less thing to worry about and many of the athletes, especially the non-football players, feel a bit more entitled and special because they’re getting more attention. Now, all the sports are given the same options.”
In addition to mending disparities in the level of care that athletes receive, Razorfuel has improved students’ sense of food security, Lewis said.
“It’s helping to promote meal frequency and ensuring that the athletes are, with their busy schedule, getting some snacks in throughout the day as opposed to not eating at all,” he said.
When students at least eat something, Razorfuel offers nutritional improvement.
“Before Razorfuel, there were definitely times when I thought I wasn’t getting enough food,” said Sierra Bronkey, captain of the Razorback softball team. “Before practice I would just grab whatever I could find, and it would be a bar or something really small.”
Now in its sixth week, Razorfuel aims to change the way student-athletes eat. The Athletic Department will launch two new programs this semester, Lewis said. The Razorbags program will provide athletes $20 worth of groceries each week and on their days off, the Red Cards program will pay $12 toward meals at Fayetteville restaurants.
When the Student-Athlete Success Center opens in summer 2015, the university won’t even have to rely on outside catering, Lewis said. All of the Razorfuel will be prepared in the new dining hall.
Athletes may be largely delighted by the NCAA ruling, but administrators face challenges associated with the new programs. There’s a reason it took almost six months to get Razorfuel up and running. The food providing measures could account for more than 2 percent of the UA athletic department’s expenditures this year, according to the 2014 budget summary.
As universities across the country scramble to rearrange athletic spending, they’ll also have to be wary of violating NCAA restrictions. To protect smaller and less wealthy athletic programs that are competitive in what are considered non-revenue-generating sports, generally everything but football and basketball, the NCAA has kept some limits on the extent of meal service that can be provided.
The restrictions are intended to prevent larger and wealthier schools from gaining an unfair advantage in recruiting.
“With the new rule we are allowed to provide snacks to athletes, but not a full on training table,” Lewis said, “which, training table is basically a fancy term for a full meal.”
When it comes to what differentiates a snack from a meal, it’s not always clear, Lewis said.
“The term ‘snack’ is used pretty loosely, and everybody has their own interpretation,” he said. “We can provide a snack to the athlete at any time that we want, as long as they are required to come down to a facility for training or a meeting or practice.”
Caveats aside, the decision to allow universities more discretionary power represents a dramatic shift from former policies, when the NCAA tightly regulated how much, how often and when schools could feed their athletes.
The 2014 rule has not yet been tested, so there is a chance that it could be revised, according to the NCAA. Until then, students like Voskamp will be able to finish practice and get the peanut butter and banana sandwich they’ve been dreaming of before jetting off to class.