COLUMBIA — Justin Perry’s friends are jealous.
They don’t care so much that Perry, an employee of the Sells Family Athletic Dining Hall at MU, can chat with James Franklin on a daily basis. They don’t begrudge his knowing that T.J. Moe is partial to cornbread. And they’re not particularly impressed by his “slightly insider” look at which Missouri football players are hobbling up to the salad bar during a given week.
Senior tailback De'Vion Moore: I love the omelets, which I take made-to-go. I get all the meats — ham, sausage and bacon — and tomatoes and cheese.
Junior cornerback Kip Edwards: I like the hot-and-fire chicken they make. I bring Frank's redhot buffalo sauce, they shake it up with chicken and kind of make it into a Subway sandwich. I really like that.
Senior wide receiver Jerrell Jackson: It's got to be on Thursdays when they bring the shrimp out. You put some Cajun on there, you put a little butter in there, add some brown rice over it, and just have some nice, tasty shrimp.
Sophomore cornerback E.J. Gaines: Taco Tuesday. It’s pretty good. I’m a taco fan, and the tacos they cook up always taste good.
But don’t get them started on the stuffed to-go box Perry leaves with every evening. Barbeque chicken? Parmesan-crusted tilapia? Fresh fruit of at least seven varieties?
“Salaried guys get complimentary tickets to football and basketball games,” Perry said. “I’m happy with food, that’s what matters to me. My friends are jealous I save so much money on food.”
Perry is part of the staff that serves 502 student-athletes at the dining hall in the back of the Missouri Athletic Training Complex. It’s where most Missouri athletes go for breakfast Monday through Friday and dinner Sunday through Thursday. It caters to their nutritional needs while aiming for a dining experience better than your typical cafeteria.
This cafeteria has restricted access. Like the other student dining halls on campus, an employee monitors the entrance. But rather than handing her their ID card, the student-athletes must type in their ID number and then place a hand on a scanner. If they are who they say they are, the scanner beeps, and they may pass.
The walls on both sides of the main aisle are covered in memorabilia. There are carpeted floors and mostly four-person dining tables. One wall has a large mounted wooden flat-screen TV set to convey a living room feel. Eight smaller TVs are positioned atop pillars leading to the food court. A bay window scaling most of the west wall overlooks the Kadlec Fields on which the football team practices. When the air horn blows for the final time, the football players will file in for a replenishing dinner.
Nutrition took on a greater emphasis in 2007, when the athletic department decided it was the one aspect missing from what it considered one of the best strength and conditioning programs in the country.
The newly-appointed director of sports nutrition, Jana Heitmeyer, helped develop different guidelines for athletes looking to gain weight, maintain weight and lose weight and called the program “Zoutrition.” More recently, she has implemented the “go, slow, and whoa” stoplight system used in elementary and high school cafeterias around the country. Each entrée is marked with a green, yellow or red card indicating its nutritional value.
Heitmeyer joked that the student-athletes like to think red cards mean "stop and get it," and she works with head chef Stephen Evans to make sure the food court doesn't resemble, in the words of Evans, a "red-light district."
When Evans became the head chef in August, he had never catered specifically for athletes before. At the U.S. Navy culinary school, cooking for athletes wasn’t on the syllabus. Working with Heitmeyer, he has learned how to cut the fat from his dishes and make more meals high in lean protein.
Heitmeyer, 31, provides the guidelines, but Evans, 28, designs the menu. When he arrived from his hometown of Las Cruces, New Mexico, Evans handed out his business card to as many of the student-athletes as he could and asked what they would like to see on the menu. He guesses he incorporated 80 percent of their requests.
“The thing a lot of people like about Stephen is that he has a passion for it,” Perry said. “He likes to try new things, and he’ll go out on a limb even if it doesn’t work. He’s committed to keeping the athletes happy.”
Items like grilled, skinless chicken are a staple and even a favorite among some football players. According to Evans, offensive lineman Max Copeland can "really eat some chicken" both at breakfast and dinner. But with a nine-week meal cycle that includes different meals every day, Evans knows how to mix it up. Drawing from home, Evans offers a "Taco Tuesday" every other week. He also has hosted a Greek-themed meal that included gyros, Mediterranean vegetables and a salad with Tzatziki, a cucumber dressing.
Then there is Steak Night, when Evans makes a smorgasbord of T-bones, ribeyes and sirloins. Evans hosted the first steak night at the end of August, and not surprisingly, it was a hit with the football players. He is planning another one in October.
Non-entree selections, such as the separate stir-fry, sandwich and pizza areas, also consider the nutritional guidelines. Evans said he is working on a gluten-free pizza, and employees like Quentin Collins are allowed to create their own.
Behold a piece of the “Mahalia,” a pizza Collins, inspired by gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, created in August. A thick cheese, mixed with barbeque sauce, has a golden glow. Pieces of chicken and bacon protrude from it, and a variety of peppers and onions are buried somewhere within.
No, it might not get a green card, but Heitmeyer said such creations offer more nutrition than a plain ole pepperoni pizza.
Employees like Perry aren't the only ones to take to-go boxes. Many student-athletes go the fast-food route. They cannot sit down in the hall with them and cannot leave with anything but fruit outside of the box, but enforcing those rules can be difficult.
"I think we do a pretty good job of making sure we get enough food," senior tailback De'Vion Moore said. "There’s a little gray area about how much is enough."
Heitmeyer says pushing moderation is a losing battle. She said she tries to educate the freshmen on portion size and asks them what they will do when they have to cook for themselves.
“You can’t have too much good stuff, you can’t go through everything, you have to control yourself,” she said. “I tell them, ‘think about what you’re going to make for yourselves when you move off-campus and start following that philosophy while you’re still in the dorms.’ That’s impossible, though.”
Every evening, Heitmeyer comes to the dining hall to put up the red, yellow and green cards and supervise. If she doesn’t see any vegetables or fruit on a player's plate, she will say something. However, the athletes monitor each other, too. Perry said backup quarterback Jimmy Costello tries to keep his teammates in check, and the football and basketball players rat out each other on many occasions.
“It’s hilarious, I’ll get pictures on my phone that they’ve taken of each other’s plates,” Heitmeyer said. “They like to tattle on each other because they think it’s funny when I yell at them.”
The department prides itself in allotting as big of a portion of its budget to fruit as meat. Fresh fruit is delivered daily. Perry worked as a dishwasher for three years before getting promoted to fruit cutter, which he said takes nearly three hours every day.
A Columbia native and 2006 graduate of Rock Bridge High School, Perry grew up a Missouri football fan. These are different players from the ones he watched on TV as a child, he said, but it's still the same team. As far as jobs that pay nine dollars an hour go, it can't get much better than his.
"I love my job," he said. "These are athletes I pay attention to, I have a score app on my phone and everything, so to see them come in is cool. We feel like we’re contributing to the family. We’re making sure they get the right nutrition."