STAMFORD — Chris Passamano was watching a freshman football game early this fall when a player came off the field feeling ill.
The Stamford High athletic director became concerned when he saw the player dry-heave on the sideline.
“I asked him if he was OK and he said, ‘I haven’t eaten. I don’t have any food,’” Passamano said. “I went to my car and grabbed a granola bar for him.”
The granola bar helped in the moment, but what Passamano soon realized
The granola bar helped in the moment, but what Passamano soon realized was the problem went far beyond one freshman football player, and the fix would have to be more than one granola bar.
As he began speaking to coaches and players, he realized a sizable percentage of the athletes playing fall sports at Stamford High were not eating enough every day. And if they ate at all in the afternoon, it was likely something from a vending machine or fast food offering little nutritional value.
Besides becoming physically ill, students playing sports without proper nourishment risk suffering from headaches, cramps, dizzy spells and feeling overly tired.
It troubled Passamano knowing athletes were battling hunger because they either did not have enough to eat or were eating the wrong things before playing in games.
In a county known for its affluence, Passamano found the entire situation unacceptable.
Rather than trying to hand out granola bars on an individual basis, he sought a more wide-sweeping solution.
“This was new to me. Coming from a similar district (Norwalk), I knew food was an issue,” he said. “There were some kids who just don’t eat. When I first got here, I saw kids who would eat breakfast, eat lunch at school and then there were kids who don’t eat again until breakfast the next day.”
Passamano was hired as the Stamford AD in July, having worked at Norwalk High for 12 years, coaching swimming and baseball. He worked as a special education teacher and spent the last two years as the dean of students at Norwalk.
Passamano approached Chartwells, the food service provider at Stamford High, about acquiring a grant to provide portable meals to athletes that could be taken to practice, on the bus to games or even taken home.
His plan was initially met with resistance since meals provided by schools must be eaten in a supervised environment. However, others eventually agreed to the plan and the Stamford Board of Education approved it once Passamano promised to buy coolers to properly store the food.
Stamford’s program is believed to be the first of its kind in the state. Hearst Connecticut Media reached out to select schools across the state and found that other municipalities have gameday meals provided by booster clubs or offer discounted protein bars or healthy snacks, but no program provides the scope Stamford is attempting.
To get the program off the ground, Passamano needed to get the students on board — and that began with eliminating the stigma of accepting the handout of the free meal.
Passamano had each coach during the fall season bring athletes to the meal pickup, showed them how it worked and stressed there was no shame in taking the food.
Players from the soccer teams at Stamford were the first to sign up, with football players and other athletes soon joining as well.
The program, known as the “Supper Club,” fed between 20-30 students every day during the fall season.
The food is available right after school, and students just have to sign a piece of paper before taking the meal. There are no other requirements.
The grant, which must be renewed each year, provides meals that generally consist of a protein such as chicken, fruit and either healthy cereal or granola bars, as well as a choice of milk or water. The coolers provided by Passamano keep the food fresh at practice or on the bus to a game.
Passamano said while the program is focused on athletes, it is open to any student who lacks food.
‘NOTHING IN THE FRIDGE’
The athletes who were the first to sign up are grateful for the supplemental meal.
“I feel very lucky to have this as an option,” one member of the boys soccer team said. “When I go home sometimes, there is nothing in the fridge and nothing for me to eat at all. Bringing that one bag of food helps out a lot. I will eat some of it after school before practice, but I also bring some of it home to eat at night.”
Many of the students using the program also take advantage of the free lunch program offered at Stamford High. According to the most recent state Department of Education data, more than 52 percent of all Stamford Public Schools students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.
The earliest lunch period at Stamford is at 11:30 a.m. That means some athletes who have games as late as 7 p.m. may not have eaten for nearly eight hours and some who don’t eat again until the next morning.
“That’s insane for any kid, but for an athlete in Fairfield County, it wasn’t right,” Passamano said.
The athletes were feeling the effects, especially playing a sport like soccer where they may run as many as 10 miles during a game.
“I was getting cramps in the middle of the game. There was one game where I had first wave (lunch) and we started the game at 6 and halfway through the game I was really hungry and started getting bad cramps,” another soccer player said. “It’s helpful to us because I don’t usually get full from the school lunch and after school, I am already hungry again.”
Cramps are just one problem that come with a lack of food, according to Stamford High athletic trainer Jordan Napolitano.
“Cramping is more from poor nutrition rather than lack of nutrition. Hydration is the biggest factor in cramping, but poor nutrition does not help and can make it worse,” Napolitano said. “When kids who haven’t eaten anything before games get on the field, they are often sluggish, susceptible to fatigue, dizziness and headaches.”
Napolitano said the meal program is a great start, but students need to be educated on making better choices, even with the free healthy food offered.
“I will come to a game and see a kid outside eating chili cheese fries or pizza right before they are going to play. We can give the kids the option of healthy food, but some will still go eat something bad for them instead,” Napolitano said. “I have seen some improvement since we began getting kids the extra meal, but we need to try to educate all the athletes about how eating healthy can improve how they play and how they feel overall.”
Players taking the food and eating before games began seeing changes in how they performed and in the overall attitude of the team.
“I noticed the difference of how I felt in games,” a third soccer player said. “Late in games, I would be hungry and lacking energy, but with the food program, it was really convenient because I had food in my bag. Before a game, I can pull out the snack and eat. I have seen a difference with a lot of guys on the team, their mood changes a little bit when they are more full. Some of our games are at 7 p.m. and we have lunch at 12 and we would not have eaten anything at all in that time. I would be hungry during the games and you just can’t perform as well.”
The supper program has been linked with another Passamano initiative, requiring athletes who fall below certain academic requirements to attend a tutoring session, known as Knight Life, before going to practice. Athletes who fail to attend the tutoring sessions are not permitted to play.
During the first marking period since Knight Life was launched, 70 percent of the students in the program increased their GPAs. Passamano said the average increase was a full letter grade.
“It is part of this push to work with our athletes beyond the field. It ties in with our tutoring program that we have after school every day,” Passamano said. “Kids playing sports who are under a certain GPA threshold are required to go there three days a week. If you don’t do it, you’re not playing. We have seen an improvement in grades. There were less kids ineligible after the first marking period than there were last year. We are talking about it under the umbrella of athletics, but the reality is, anybody can go to the tutoring or go get food who needs it. If we can find different ways to take care of our kids physically and academically, we will build a better overall school community here.”