Adam Phillips, coach of the ninth-grade boys basketball team at Boise’s Fairmont Junior High School, started to notice something about his players on game days. Despite the fans filing into the stands, the recorded pop music soundtrack, the sternum-rattling sound of the buzzer and the thump of basketballs dribbled simultaneously by a score of JV players — his players were often low on energy.
Phillips soon realized that many of the boys, some of them from homes where their parents or guardians are struggling financially, weren’t getting the healthiest food to eat on game days. Fairmont has so many low-income families that it qualifies as a 100 percent free or reduced lunch school. The school serves a large number of homeless students and refugees. Some students are from families in which a parent is incarcerated. At the same time, other families are intact and as financially secure as any family in more affluent schools, making for a diverse student body.
“But they were still eating garbage. Junk food,” said Phillips, acknowledging that some of their poor diet choices are because they’re teenagers and more likely to grab chips or a can of pop than a sandwich.
Phillips, who also teaches eighth-grade English and coaches track in the spring, wanted to improve the situation, but didn’t want to add to any challenged family’s burden by asking them to buy better food or to single out team members in need. So Phillips quietly reached out to the community to ask for donations of healthy food for the whole team. He started with the Boise Co-op since he’d worked there during holidays when he was a graduate student at the University of Montana.
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The Co-op gets a lot of requests for donations, said Mo Valkow, marketing manger.
“It’s hard because we can’t always say yes. But this story hit home with us,” Valkow said. The focus on healthy food and education is in line with the Co-op’s own mission, she said.
The Co-op donated energy bars and organic fruit and vegetables as well as peanut butter.
Phillips also talked about the team with a friend, Matt Jantz, who works at Albertsons. Jantz connected Phillips to Kathy Holland, communications and community relations manager for Albertsons Intermountain Division. She, too, was willing to help the Falcons.
Albertsons was celebrating the renovation and reopening of its store at Cole Road and Fairview Avenue, not far from Fairmont. The celebration included donating $1,000 to Fairmont to spend on books, computers or other items. Albertsons also gave a $500 gift card to the basketball team along with gift certificates for fresh eggs and other foods.
Now, several games into the season, in which the team has won some games and lost others, Phillips said his classroom has become “a fortress of food.” The ball-playing Falcons have fresh fruit, organic yogurt, trail mix, fruit juice and vegetables. They can eat during the day and, during games, grab healthy snacks from a small cardboard box stashed behind the coach’s courtside chair.
The boys “have just been destroying” the peanut butter he spreads on celery stalks, Phillips said.
For the players, having good food to eat is just one aspect of being on a uniquely cohesive team where most everyone is friends with everyone else, they say.
“All there is to it is having love for each other and having each other’s back,” said student Moses Estrada, who plays post. “Having a team like this can lead you to so many good things in life.”
Phillips has been impressed with the team’s hard work during practice.
“It’s cool to see them start to get the distinct feel for the game so I’m not having to tell them,” he said. “They’re able to improvise and use each other’s movements. That’s when things start to get fun.”
Historically, Fairmont coaches have limited their varsity basketball teams to 12 players.
“But this year I had 14 kids come out. And they’re such great kids with such character,” Phillips said. “They’re so respectful of each other. When it came time to cut players, I just couldn’t.”
He decided that all 14 players would make the team.
And everybody, even the strongest players who would have made the team in any case, were OK with that.
See the Falcons in action
This week, Fairmont plays at home (2121 N. Cole Road) against South Junior High School at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 22, and against West Junior High, also in the home gym, at 3:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 24.
Find a full basketball schedule on the Boise School District website.