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What’s Cooking?

Arena dining hall hits the sweet spot for Cavalier student-athletes

Brandon Carter (Col ’10) was having a hard time adjusting to college-level track and field workouts. A lean-bodied sprinter, he often felt run down at the end of practice. He’d never given much thought to nutrition back home in Atlanta, but now, his coaches and older teammates suggested that he re-evaluate how he was eating.

Carter has found his answers in the athletic dining room in the John Paul Jones Arena. “In practice, we burn a lot of calories,” he says, his plate laden with chicken fingers and lots of fruits and vegetables. After a workout, “it’s important for us to get the right nutrients in our bodies as soon as possible.”

Carter is one of hundreds of Cavalier athletes who are eating well in the arena facility, which has been a hit from day one. Managers at Aramark, the contractor that runs all of UVA’s dining halls, had expected about 200 diners per night at the JPJ (open for dinner five nights a week); instead, they have been averaging 375 student-athletes and guests.

Hannah Jordan (Col ’10), a rower from Seattle, says she goes out of her way to eat dinner at the JPJ, even if the crew team practices in the morning and she has to make the long trek from the first-year dorms. “It’s great food,” she says. “It’s very welcoming.”

That sort of praise is music to the ears of Jon Oliver, UVA senior associate director of athletics. Well ahead of the arena’s opening, he convened an athletics dining committee, including trainers, strength and conditioning coaches and athletes, to make recommendations for the new dining hall.

The new facility is a dining paradise. Though the room is huge, carpeting and cherry-wood accents make it feel intimate and warm. Students choose from a row of food stations along one wall, each with an attendant: one with fresh fruits, grains, nuts and legumes; then pasta, always with vegetarian options; a station full of carbohydrate-rich starches; another with multiple vegetable offerings and breads; and finally a protein station, usually offering two meats and fish, or perhaps a meat-tofu-fish array.

There is also a soda fountain (Gatorade is the most popular drink) and a frozen yogurt table. “You can’t take away anything, because if you do, they’re not going to come,” says Eddie Whedbee, who manages the facility for Aramark. “We have to walk a pretty fine line here between things that are healthy for them and what they want.” He often fine-tunes the menu based on suggestions from athletes.

For questions about various food options, a computer kiosk offers Web access to a listing of nutritional information for that night’s menu. A full-time sports nutritionist is being hired and will formulate individual nutrition plans for all student-athletes, which would also be accessible from the kiosk, Oliver says.

The JPJ facility’s allure doesn’t end with the food. The location is convenient to most varsity practice sites, and a fully equipped academic center is one level below, where many students attend study halls. Inside the dining room, most athletes start out eating with teammates, but there is plenty of socializing among teams, leading to a growing esprit de corps, Oliver says. Eight flat-screen TVs circle the room, and a 10-foot screen drops from the ceiling for special occasions.

Unfortunately, the dining room does not provide free viewing for events inside the arena, though it does remain open. Doors that access the arena are closed, and drapes block the view. When the road show from the children’s TV show The Wiggles played the JPJ last fall, “We had some of the field hockey girls trying to get up there to see it,” Whedbee says. “It was pretty funny.”