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SAGE Dining Services and Pingry Athletics Team Up to Offer Athlete-Friendly Meals

If you were in the Engel Dining Room for lunch recently, you might have noticed a lengthy queue of hungry students, winding out of the servery and far into the scrum of tables and chairs. The newly launched Korean rice bowl was worth their wait. Indeed, Mike Ciampa—Pingry's new SAGE Food Service Director—tallied that he blew through 25 pounds of edamame that day. Quantities of steamed shrimp and poached broccoli were close behind.

It was a convincing scene. Gone are the days of kids turning unequivocally and unabashedly to pizza and fries. Students and their parents want more and better food options, says Mr. Ciampa. And while SAGE Dining Services, with whom Pingry partners, has always prioritized healthy food options, in a new initiative with the School's Department of Athletics, they are now offering athlete-friendly meals as well. Move over meatball sub. Enter, the vegetarian gyro—another, among many, popular new lunch item energizing students on the Basking Ridge Campus.

When Mr. Ciampa arrived at Pingry from Blair Academy at the start of the school year, he approached Director of Athletics, Carter Abbott, to ask what he could do to support student athletes at the school. He shared with her SAGE's athlete-friendly program—which is just as friendly and popular among non-athletes—called "Performance Spotlight." Related menu items, designated by an emblem of a runner (right), are geared towards "fueling optimal performance" by providing balanced foods containing high protein, low fat, and complex carbohydrates. Responding positively, Mrs. Abbott suggested Mr. Ciampa talk to Doug Scott, Pingry's Director of Strength & Conditioning, and Form VI Dean. He also happens to be an Ironman. The new food program was a no-brainer for him.

"Eighty percent of our Upper School students play sports. And regardless of whether they're an athlete, what students eat at lunch is going to affect how they do their homework at night," says Mr. Scott. "In Intro to Fitness, I teach that 80% of our daily calories should come from healthy foods. Now, we have a lunch program in place to back up what we teach and make these choices even easier for our students."

Worth emphasizing is that SAGE, which has served as the School's food service vendor for 16 years, has long focused on offering lean proteins, healthy fats, complex carbohydrates, and an array of fruits and vegetables at lunches through their Spotlight Program (a color-coded system that helps students to assemble a well-balanced plate of food). With the Performance Spotlight program, more and better options are now available, for both the athlete looking to prep for an afternoon game as well as any health-conscious student.

Team SAGE, led by Mike Ciampa, far right. 

Take that Korean rice bowl station, for example. Students began with a bowl of brown rice and protein (either chicken or shrimp), and added their favorite toppings, from edamame and broccoli to steamed carrots, sesame seeds, and green onions. "Deconstructed" food options like this and nachos, for example, are popular "build-it-yourself" options. A student athlete with a 4:00 p.m. game might take a plate of nachos and add on roast chicken strips and black beans, but hold the extra cheese and sour cream. Even the "Mangia Mangia" pasta station has transformed—no longer just plain white pasta, a protein and a vegetable source are always available as add-ons. A variety of high-protein, gluten-free grains are also more available, including rice, millet, and quinoa. Hard-boiled eggs, avocado, plain roasted chicken, and beans are salad bar staples. The "hot lunch" option, similarly, offers a Performance Spotlight special. What's more, unsweetened iced tea has replaced the sugary variety, and Mr. Ciampa even plans to roll out a proprietary sports drink (he's still tinkering with the recipe).

Athlete-friendly meals will be available every day of the week. However, on Tuesdays and Thursdays this fall, typical game days, they will be featured menu items, with fewer competing options. (Read: creamy mac 'n cheese will not be served alongside the build-your-own salad niçoise, so as not to complicate students' decision-making process!) They will also be featured on Fridays, in an effort to help student athletes prep for Saturday competitions.

Mr. Scott says that communication between SAGE and athletics only benefits Pingry students more. "It used to be that the line was out the door for French fries and pizza. Now, the line is out the door for rice bowls," observes Mr. Scott, who has worked at Pingry for 20 years. "Yesterday, a classic reuben sandwich was offered, but it was the caprese panini that the kids wiped out. Students today want to choose healthier options. They all go to Chipotle and order the burrito bowl [as opposed to the burrito itself]. Now, we're able to offer the same thing here."

A four-year employee of SAGE, Mr. Ciampa has already observed that production and consumption of healthy foods are high at Pingry (recall the 25 pounds of edamame gone in a single day). "Better food choices create a healthier mindset among students," he says. "And we are always evaluating our menu items and adjusting; they are never cast in stone." Yet, he adds, don't ask him to give up his signature "Fun-Food Fridays," when he can acknowledge week's end—and delight teenage palates—with three-cheese baked ziti, traditional fish-and-chips, or a succulent rodeo burger.

Contact: Andrea Dawson, Senior Writer,