Their eyes were as big as silver dollars, glimmering with a mix of admiration and envy. Sterling students and softballers Karlie Mellot and Mariyah Martinez hung on every word spoken by Milledgeville graduate Kelsey Hayen.
She wasn't describing the first-place trophy her Missiles earned in East Peoria, where the Golden Warriors placed fourth – both finishes the best in their programs' histories. No, Hayen was detailing the lunch spread at Milledgeville High School.
"I'm completely jealous," Martinez said.
Graduates Alex Cain of Oregon, Alex Volckmann of Morrison and Paige Rus of Erie rounded out the guests who took part in a roundtable discussion on sports nutrition Monday afternoon at the Sauk Valley Media office.
The panel was intimidating, and they pulled no punches while discussing the state of nutrition in America. Among the consensus agreements was the concern that nutrition isn't being taught in high schools.
"I feel that kids these days don't know what healthy food is," said Rus, the reigning SVM girls athlete of the year. "They think that french fries are a vegetable."
Noble intentions such as the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 – a federal law requiring more healthy offerings in cafeterias – evoke troubling responses in schools, the panelists agreed.
"This year, the government really stepped it up a notch, and they say it's because of the state laws requiring them to only serve wheat, and to take a serving of veggies and fruit," Rus said. "Even if [students] don't want it, they have to have it on their tray. A lot of kids complain about that. They don't like that."
At Milledgeville, Hayen said, girls don't eat because they don't want to pay for a lunch they don't like.
"That bothers the crap out of me," she said, "because your body is just eating your muscle and storing it as fat. It's not going to help you any."
"I could never skip a lunch," Volckmann said. "When I skip any meal, I feel…"
"Like crap," Martinez finished.
"Like a zombie," Volckmann added.
"That's like, people who don't eat breakfast?" Hayen said.
"That makes me so mad," Martinez said.
So what is it on the Milledgeville spread that had Martinez drooling, but makes other kids wrinkle their noses? That's a fine place to start.
School: Milledgeville, Class of 2013
Sports: Basketball, softball, volleyball
College plans: Major in exercise science, play softball at North Central College
Hayen can almost hear the grumbling coming from the kitchen when she orders at BombDigity, the Dixon restaurant where her mom is the assistant manager.
There are several relatively healthy options on the menu, including Hayen's favorite: the grilled chicken and strawberry salad. But, aside from that item, most of her orders are made special, like a grilled chicken sandwich, hold the bun.
"The kitchen knows when I order my food," Hayen said. "I have everything special ordered."
That stems from the Hayen household being chock full of healthy options. No meat, she said, is purchased at the store. Instead, it comes from a family friend who raises livestock.
The school caters to her penchant for eating healthy, too. Her description of the salad bar – complete with grilled chicken and mandarin oranges, exclusively whole wheat items, and bags of apples – brings tears to the Sterling students' eyes and drool to the front of their mouths.
"We don't have any bad choices at my school," Hayen said. "We don't have soda machines or vending machines, and the Gatorade machines are only turned on after school or during lunch."
This past year was the first time dessert was offered only twice a week. There are no bottles of condiments; each student is limited to three packets.
Hayen tries to bring a healthy flair into the classroom, too. In her foods class, she often convinced her teacher, Barb Peugh, to substitute healthier options, and even talked her out of baking cakes.
"She loved it," said Hayen, who also makes sure to have plenty of sensible snacks for her teammates on bus trips.
Her dad, Daryl, a former professional bodybuilder, convinced her that her calling was staring the three-sport athlete right in the face. "I want to be like Jillian Michaels on 'The Biggest Loser.' I want to help people lose weight," she said.
School: Sterling, Class of 2015
Future plans: Study sports nutrition
Martinez is an inspiration to anyone who makes a New Year's resolution. As 2011 turned into 2012, unhappy with her weight, Martinez decided to form her own meal plan – at home.
"My family, … we weren't healthy," Martinez admitted. "[My mother] made unhealthy choices, so I would just usually make my own food. It sounds bad, but I'm not going to eat what you make me."
So Martinez would make her own meal.
"Asian chicken salads are her favorite," her mother, Roberta, said Wednesday during a phone interview. "With the schedules that we have, a dinner table is incredibly hard to enforce. Her choosing to go with a healthier option for herself at night, that just goes to show her level of maturity and dedication."
Her father, Paz, noticed his daughter's commitment to change and got her a personal trainer. Fifteen pounds fell off, impressive considering the lean muscle she added. Suddenly, Martinez was "swimming" in her shorts from last summer.
"That's just by cutting out pop and bad breads – all the white stuff – and chips and processed foods," Martinez said. "I feel a lot better. I feel a lot more energized. And I've noticed my mom has started buying a lot of healthier food."
Her siblings, 10-year-old brother Mateo and 12-year-old sister Trinity appear to be following her lead.
"Her brother has started to grab the apples and the bananas, because he's seeing what his sister is doing," Roberta said. "I love it. I love vegetables, and she does. We went from having cupboards full of Little Debbie food snacks to almonds, nuts and pretzels."
School: Sterling, Class of 2014
College plans: Play softball and major in engineering at Purdue University
Martinez will have big shoes to fill next season, the likely candidate to replace 4-year standout pitcher Stephanie Kester in the circle. But she'll have the support of one of the best high-school shortstops.
And Mellott will always go to battle with Martinez on the subject of nutrition. Like Hayen, few things make her happier than seeing others take ownership of their health.
"It's a skill, and it's a life skill," said Mellott, who said kinesiology is the fall-back plan for engineering. "Once you get it, you keep it up. You feel so much better, especially with sports. The results are so obvious. You're toned. You have more energy. You're stronger.
"When you gain strength, and you feel comfortable in your body, you feel more confident. It's awesome to see people grow that way. It's amazing."
Mellott's brother Drake, who graduated in 2011, told his kid sister to steer clear of the cafeteria. That helped, she said. So, too, oddly, did her acid reflux.
"If you eat something you shouldn't, you know," Mellott said. "You have to come to the realization that, if you want to eat healthy, you have to change your ways and sacrifice."
School: Morrison, Class of 2013
Sports: Football, basketball, baseball
College plans: Major in exercise science at St. Ambrose University, complete doctorate in physical therapy
Like Mellott, Volckmann views his physiological limitations as a tool. If Mellott's acid reflux is a vice-grip, Volckmann's restrictions are a fully stocked work bench.
The three-sport standout is allergic to dairy, eggs, wheat, nuts and kiwi – the last allergy a recent discovery.
"I only had a little bit, and my throat started swelling," Volckmann said. "If I'd had a bunch of it, who knows."
Needless to say, Volckmann has never eaten his school's provided lunch. While the rest of us mull myriad options at the store or in our kitchens, Volckmann's brown bag typically holds deli meat – "the healthiest meat I can get" – an apple, carrots, Gatorade and water.
"That's my usual diet, and I don't really change from that," he said. "It's healthy, and it's easy. It gives me a lot of energy.
"My allergies are a blessing, I'm in better shape than most other guys."
His positive outlook is complemented by a call to action.
"I know what would've made my life easier is food allergy options," Volckmann said, "but they're definitely incorporating that."
School: Oregon, Class of 2013
Sports: Basketball, baseball
College plans: Play baseball at Eastern Illinois University
Cain is well built, the portrait of a college sports standout-to-be. But he was sort of the exception on the panel. While the other five packed their own lunches this past year, the cafeteria was Cain's oyster.
"I pretty much just went with whatever my gut felt every day," Cain said. "I'd walk in and see what they're gonna serve."
Note the past tense. Cain's world changed about a month ago. While on his senior trip to Florida, he found out his dad was having a minor operation.
"They said that the doctors had found a little blockage," Cain said.
In reality, during a stress test, they'd found all four of his arteries to be severely blocked, leading to quadruple bypass surgery the next day.
"I had no idea that he was under the knife for 8½ hours until I got home," Cain said. "That was a real life change for me."
Especially considering his dad's lifestyle. Yes, trips to Chicago would include fast-food meals and, when he got home, he might put away a bag of chips.
"But he's always been a guy who exercises and, being 60 years old, he rides his bike all the time and runs all the time," Cain said. "His heart was able to operate around all the blockages. They just started to catch up to him. He still does the same stuff he's always done. Now that he eats better, he's lost so much weight."
He lost 25 pounds, for those scoring at home. Behold the power of diet.
"So my house has gone on a drastic 180 turn on foods that are in there," Cain said.
He admits that change isn't easy.
"Right now, it's still kind of fresh," he said. "A lot of times, I'll still eat like any other 15- to 18-year-old kid, where I'll go out and have a burger and fries at a restaurant. But a lot more, when I'm home with him, I'm thinking about what's going into my diet. He's grilling chicken all the time, because that's all he can really make himself want to eat. You have to figure out new ways to spice things up."
School: Erie, Class of 2013
Sports: Volleyball, basketball, track and field
College plans: Run track, major in exercise science, minor in nutrition at Monmouth College
After the roundtable discussion, the group ventured to the grocery for a mock shop. Rus spent little time in the fluorescent-lit aisles. And she's grateful for that.
A self-described farm girl, Rus carved her state-title-caliber body on the 54 steps of the grain bin on the farm. Providing the fuel was grass-fed protein and, perhaps more than anything, the family garden.
Rus can't emphasize enough the importance of knowing how to read nutrition labels and understand the importance of portion sizes.
"Even with bananas," she said. "You don't want to have too many bananas. It's all about portion control."
All group members chimed in on how important it is to understand the difference between regular, light (one-third less fat than regular) and fat-free. Not to mention how important it is to be able to pronounce the ingredients. In order for those light products to be light or fat-free and taste like the "real thing," a whole new can of chemicals often is opened.
But Rus knows what the real thing tastes like. Just before leaving the produce section, she rattled off the long list of produce her family reaps from its garden every week.
"It makes you enjoy the food a lot more. And it just tastes better," Rus said. "Anything fresh is better."
More at saukvalley.com
When asked if they'd like to do a mock shop, five hands shot into the air. To see the gang explain the difference between rolled oats and boxed oatmeal, and offer their thoughts on the challenge of affording to eat well, visit saukvalley.com/blogs/extra-extra.