The annoying chime from the alarm jolts students from their slumber as they prepare for another school day.
An alarm, especially after a few snooze delays, leaves most teens just enough time for the necessities: getting dressed, brushing their teeth, showering and grabbing their backpacks to head to school.
Many kids omit something important: breakfast.
Josh Browning, physical education and health department chair, cross-country and track and field coach at Mitchell High School, recognized the trend as he has students fill out nutritional logs in his class.
The nutritional logs, which other southeast high schools also use, contain information such as what and when kids eat and the approximate calories for each meal.
Many students said skipping breakfast is about saving time rather than a lack of food. However, omitting breakfast sets a bad precedent for the day, especially for student-athletes.
Browning said kids burn calories throughout the day — walking to class, sitting at their desk — and do not fuel themselves with proper nutrition.
“By the time they get to practice, they’re probably running negative [in calories],” Browning said. “… They’re lethargic, they’re fatigued, their muscles are cramping. It’s hard to build strength in the weight room because your body is absorbing everything at a rapid rate.”
In an area like the southeast, where food insecurity and a lack of healthy foods is well established by county and federal assessments, the challenge of staying healthy for student athletes is especially hard.
(NO0 MAKE UP CALORIES
Kitten DuPreez, D1 Training coach, general manager and owner, said metabolism, which converts food into energy, doesn’t start until someone eats.
“If you wait until lunch to eat, guess what lays dormant at the same time? Your metabolism,” DuPreez said. “Your first meal doesn’t always have to be big. It can be as simple as toast and peanut butter, oatmeal, or anything carbohydrate-filled. Carbohydrates are where your body pulls all its fuel.”
A majority of southeast students qualify for free or reduced lunch in the southeast, which means they have access to healthy options provided by their schools.
As of October 2021, approximately 66 percent of students at Harrison, 67 percent at Sierra, qualify for free or reduced lunch, according to HSD2.org. Nearly three-quarters of District 11 Mitchell students qualify for free or reduced lunch.
Schools provide options such as fruits, vegetables, salads, milk, protein/meats for students’ breakfast and lunch they might not otherwise get.
Though these meals provide healthy alternatives, coaches say it’s not enough for practice or a sporting event.
“If you look at the caloric intake you’re getting from some of these school lunches, those hit the bare-minimum levels,” Browning said. “Athletes need to hit anywhere from 2,500 to 2,800 calories [per day] to make sure their energy levels are where they need to be. Our athletes eat about 800-1,100 calories in a day.
“By the time they get to practice, they don’t have anything to give.”
Prior to practice or during lunch, some student-athletes attempt to find more fulfilling meals to make up for missed breakfast and to ready their bodies for training.
However, in the southeast, those who attempt to do so have limited healthy selections.
PARADOX OF CHOICE
“[Kids] can get to a liquor store faster than they can get to a Whole Foods,” Browning said. “They can get to pot shops, McDonald’s and gas stations faster than they can get to anything that’s going to aid them with some healthy benefits.”
Browning’s assessment isn’t just true of Mitchell. Lack of healthy food options plague the southeast.
In a May 2018 food assessment by El Paso County Public Health, the report noted, “El Paso County has a notably low rate of grocery stores and supermarkets per capita compared to the rest of the state (which is already low compared to the rest of the country.)”
The report indicated that grocery stores and supermarkets in Colorado averaged around 1.5 per 10,000 people in population.
For El Paso County, from 2009-2015, that rate was less than one.
There’s no shortage of food, it just isn’t very healthy. Mitchell High School, located near North Academy, sits in what academics have dubbed a food swamp — a smorgasbord of fast food and to-go restaurants.
Less than a three-minute drive from the school are McDonald’s, Captain D’s, Taco Bell, Wendy’s, KFC and Joe’s Crab Shack.
Excluding the Citadel Mall food court and Raising Cane’s, which is under construction, Mitchell has more than 20 eateries within one mile of its campus.
“It’s tough because we’ll tell [our athletes] to get something small to eat, but something small to them is a 4 for $4 meal from Wendy’s,” said Chris Gunn, Mitchell social studies teacher and girls basketball coach. “… It’s tough to point out [bad eating habits] when they can’t physically see how those eating habits impact them.”
Sierra, located near the south end of Academy, and Harrison have fewer fast-food selections compared to Mitchell, but still many bad options, include Blackjack Pizza & Salads, Little Caesars, McDonald’s, Tacos Del Gordo and Taco Bell.
Harrison has Starbucks, Carl’s Jr., McDonald’s, Buffalo Wild Wings, Olive Garden, Old Chicago and more near the school.
Better food sources do exist. Nearby Harrison is a Smoothie King, Olde Bagel World, Subway and Target, which contains a grocery section. Sierra is near a King Soopers and Safeway.
But even when nutritious choices exist, coaches and athletes say temptation often bests those scrounging for good food.
“A granola bar versus a 4 for $4,” Gunn said. “Wendy’s is more exciting than the granola bar and a banana.”
As vital a role that food plays in the physical aspect of sports, nutrients also serve a critical purpose to gaining a mental edge.
DuPreez emphasized how she declines to work with those who have not eaten prior to training sessions.
“You put me up against something I can’t beat,” DuPreez said. “I need your body to have the proper fuel to train you. If [athletes] want to perform at their peak, they better take control of what they’re eating.”
People become irritable due to poor nutrition and DuPreez said this affects how they perform.
“If you eat something that’s crappy and your body burns through it, you start to get a little more moody,” DuPreez said. “You start to not have the mental capacity to handle a particular thing, whether that’s class, interactions with people or other life situations.”
Erin Mason, registered dietician for El Paso County Public Health, said a healthy diet is “vitally important” to how an athlete performs.
Rather than consume calorie-dense meals with little to no nutritional values, i.e., fast food, Mason said athletes should focus on nourishment that supports muscle recovery and energy.
“Eating the right types of carbohydrates is going to be important,” Mason said. “Whole grains like whole wheat bread, brown rice or whole wheat pasta are good. Those foods tend to have a lot more fiber and … will help you fill fuller longer so you won’t have to eat as much.”
Harrison’s cross-country, track and field athlete Michaela Cruickshank has seen the effects of proper nutrition firsthand.
In her freshman year, Cruickshank said she “could have eaten better” before events. She sometimes ate fast food following practice and occasionally declined to eat before an event.
“My nerves would bother me and I couldn’t really eat,” Cruickshank said. “But I remember one time I didn’t eat before a meet and I did bad compared to the [meet] prior.”
This season, Cruickshank said she has not eaten fast food since Feb. 28. Instead, she eats her parents’ cooking and snacks on bananas and protein bars and has noticed the difference.
At the Palmer Terror Invitational track and field meet on March 12, she won the girls long jump and finished third in both the open 100 and 200 meter dash.
“My freshman season of track I didn’t take it too seriously,” Cruickshank said “I’d leave practice and go to McDonald’s. This year, I’m doing the right things: eating right, sleeping earlier, staying hydrated. I feel more confident going on the runway for my jumps. I feel stronger and I feel better running.”
KEEP IT SIMPLE
DuPreez said she would “never” tell anyone to completely avoid fast food.
“I could never say no to a fry,” DuPreez joked. “Rather than say ‘don’t go there,’ make better choices.”
Fast food restaurants provide substitutes to some food items and selecting those versus fried options can benefit the buyer.
DuPreez said rather than a fried chicken sandwich from Chick-fil-A, the grilled option provides more nutritional value.
Also, salads, peanut butter and jelly, or rice bowls with grilled meat and veggies serve as alternatives to fast food.
“As little as possible is always better with fast food,” DuPreez said. “Eating that food once a week or here and there as a treat is OK. The more you go toward those good choices, the better. They’re not the easier ones, but if you want to improve, especially as an athlete, you’ll start to make the right choices.”
Browning wants to encourage better eating choices by providing better options on campus.
Schools such as Valor Christian in Highlands Ranch, which boasts that more than 75 percent of its student body participates in athletics, have sponsorships at their schools which provide student-athletes with nutrition bars and other healthy snacks throughout the day.
Browning said he’s working to bring something similar back to Mitchell.
“That’s why they’re able to compete at such a high level,” Browning said. “We want to be able to provide take-home baskets for the kids so they have the proper food to eat throughout the day so they can start off on the right foot. We want them to have the ability to compete with those bigger schools.”