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Striking Out: The Food Environment in Youth Sports

by Mallory Brown, Ph.D. Candidate

Sports were a really big part of my life when I was a kid, but softball was my favorite. I always had really great coaches, I won tons of trophies, and I was always lucky enough to find myself on teams where the parents took the job of providing snacks very seriously. At the end of every game, the coach would talk to us while we enjoyed a sweet treat and washed it down with a Coke or Capri Sun. Then, of course, there were the inevitable trips to the concession stand for a giant Pixy Stix and Double Bubble gum. However, that was a long time ago, way back in the 90’s. Surely things are different now, right? According to my research, not necessarily.

While working on my PhD in Health Education/Promotion here at University of Kentucky, I have spent a lot of time researching the food environment within recreation and sports facilities, specifically organized sports including youth softball and baseball. In the summer of 2017, I spent time with youth softball players from Jessamine County talking with them about their perceptions of the types of snacks that were available to them when they were playing softball. I asked questions about both the snacks their parents were providing, as well as what was available to them at the concession stand. I found that these youth are still exposed to the same types of foods and beverages that I was 20 years ago.

This past fall, to expand on that research, I began conducting focus groups with parents of youth baseball players in Fayette County. I was lucky enough to form a partnership with the Southwest Lexington Pony Baseball League. The president of the league sees the value in the research I am doing and has agreed to let me talk with some of the parents. Like my previous study, I asked questions about the food environment within youth baseball, but this time from the parents’ perspective. Since research shows that our youth are being served and sold “less healthy” foods while participating in organized sports, I am interested in understanding why it is still happening. By talking to parents, I am hoping to understand their role in the snacking culture that continues to be prevalent today.

Sports taught me many valuable lessons as a kid including teamwork, perseverance and sportsmanship. I suspect anyone who has had a positive experience with youth sports feels the same. However, the food environment is one aspect of youth sports that needs some serious work. Despite advancements in nutrition knowledge, the food environments seem to be eerily similar to what I remember as a kid. Sports provide multiple benefits for those who participate, but we know that Pixy Stix and Capri Suns are definitely not beneficial in any way. Through my research, I hope to gain a better understanding of why such little has changed, in hopes of making things better for the future. To find more about my research, please contact me at Mallory Brown. For information on our graduate program at UK, check out this link (https://education.uky.edu/khp/grad/) and click on Health Promotion or follow us on Twitter @uk_khpgraduate.

Mallory Brown
Mallory Brown is a Ph.D. candidate in Health Promotion/Health Education and is being advised by Dr. Melinda Ickes. Her research interests include childhood obesity as well as nutrition education programming and evaluation.