She stands out from the crowd as she goes about her daily work, doing her part to make sure the professional athletes around her are properly fueled for their own work.
UNCG’s Madeleine Meinhold BS ’19, MS ’21, is an alumna and assistant professor of nutrition in the School of Health and Human Sciences. But her summer job this year finds her working for the Pittsburgh Pirates as the dietician and nutritionist for the Greensboro Grasshoppers.
It’s a good fit. Meinhold grew up playing soccer in Wilmington and has always had an interest in sports. Part of her job at UNCG is serving as the nutritionist for all the Spartans’ teams, a partnership for the nutrition departments and athletics.
“I took that on in 2020,” Meinhold says. “I got all of their nutrition services up and running. We started a fueling station. I did some group nutrition education, some one-on-ones – all sorts of things.”
The Pirates, meanwhile, have been on the cutting edge of proper nutrition for their players, starting in the minor leagues. And they needed help with their Class-A South Atlantic League affiliate in Greensboro.
Meinhold’s friend and colleague Babbi Hawkins, UNCG’s dietetic internship director, connected her with the baseball team.
“Babbi received the email from the Major League dietitian up in Pittsburgh,” Meinhold says, “and she immediately forwarded it to me. This is perfect, right? It’s a summer experience. It’s sports-related. There’s collaboration involved. We have the Major League dietitian and dieticians with all the affiliates, who all work together as the players move through the system.”
ON THE JOB
Pittsburgh has five minor-league teams in its farm system. Greensboro is the third rung on the climb up the ladder. And the goal is consistent nutrition planning on each step.
“There is some of individual, one-on-one nutrition education work with players,” Meinhold says. “But the main thing I do is handle all their meals. I’m planning and scheduling 12 meals a week, pregame and postgame. That’s my primary responsibility: making sure we’re ready to go or recovering appropriately.”
The Pirates are secretive about the details of their approach to nutrition. They guard it the same way a catcher hides the signs he flashes to his pitcher.
But the bottom line is proper nutrition can help athletes be better, and that could give Pittsburgh players an edge.
“I support the players from an individual approach,” Meinhold says. “I’m there if they have individual questions, if they have individual needs, or if we’ve noticed something. For example, weight loss is kind of a common trend because they’re playing so many games a week in the heat, and if you’re not fueling properly, if you miss a couple meals here and there, it can really add up. It’s important to make sure they’re maintaining their weight.
“And if a player is injured, how can we support his recovery from that injury from a nutrition standpoint? And I make sure we’re fueling properly during the game. I prepare and get together some stuff for them for intra-workout fueling that includes some hydration support. … There are different products available that are designed specifically for intra-workout fueling, and we can provide some education about that as well: ‘These are the options we have, and this is why they work,’ just so the players know.”
It’s been an eye-opener for some of the players.
First baseman Jacob Gonzalez grew up around the game, the son of five-time All-Star Luis Gonzalez. The Grasshoppers’ cleanup hitter learned the game, not how to cook.
“Some teams have started adding nutritionists, and it’s something that kind of goes unnoticed,” Gonzalez says. “How you’re fueling your body matters, and having someone around whose job is to ensure that everyone is fueled properly and taking care of themselves, you see players get a lot more out of themselves. Because if it were up to us, a lot of us would be living on pizzas and junk food.
“Who’s not a sucker for a good pizza? Especially after a game when you’re starving. But having a nutritionist around, I’m eating better food that definitely settles me most nights.”
FINDING HER WAY
Meinhold has built trust with the team. She’s with them in the clubhouse before and after games. She’s in the dugout with them during games.
Her meals aren’t going to please everybody because individual tastes vary. But all of them have grown to understand her work helps their bodies.
“The guys come from all over the place, and they all have varying levels of previous nutrition education,” Meinhold says. “Some athletes, you really have to do some selling to. It’s the same with this baseball team as it is with the athletes at UNCG: getting that buy-in, so they see the value of nutrition and how nutrition can really take their current performance to the next level. Because nutrition can be that 1 percent difference that can really help over the long term.”
The toughest obstacle for Meinhold has been the language barrier. The Grasshoppers’ roster is stocked with 15 players from the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Venezuela, and Colombia.
“A lot of the guys speak Spanish, so I have to be creative in my approach with them,” Meinhold says. “They’re a little more hesitant, and it makes sense, you know? If you’re not speaking your first language, that would make anybody nervous.”
Meinhold has flourished in the job, just as she flourished at UNCG, first as a student and now a faculty member.
It’s the choice that helped her find her way.
“UNCG is one of the only schools in North Carolina that has a nutrition program,” Meinhold says. “It was the perfect mix of everything for me. It was not too far away from home. It had this really great program where I could get my DPD (Didactic Program in Dietetics) courses and my bachelor’s degree in nutrition. What I really liked is I could stay here and do the Dietetic Internship Program, and get my master’s degree. There’s a really inviting and supportive environment here at UNCG. I felt really well connected to supporting resources. UNCG checked all the boxes. If I can get everything done in one place and it’s a great program, yeah, that works for me.”
Story and photos by Jeff Mills, University Communications