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Darby School District’s food service director has been selected as a Health Hero in the Eat Right Montana and Montana Action for Healthy Kids 2018 Health Hero Award Program.

Eight food service directors with a positive impact on healthy eating in Montana were acknowledge and celebrated for their outstanding efforts to improve the well-being of their communities.

Dave Thomas received his statewide Healthy Hero Award in Bozeman last week.

“I was nominated by Danielle Anderson from No Kids Hungry,” he said. “I feel great and was so surprised. To be selected out of the whole state of Montana is pretty awesome.”

In her nomination, Anderson called Thomas “an incredible advocate for all things lunchroom, health and nutrition related projects.”

“He works tirelessly and has really taken the lead on creating a student-staff community and is the first person to say yes to any student initiative,” Anderson said. “He’s also able to take his whole staff with him on this journey as he is great at instilling teamwork.”

Anderson said that last year, Thomas also won Montana No Kid Hungry’s photo contest to showcase healthy school meals in Montana.

“His awesome breakfast banana split took first place in our breakfast category,” Anderson said.

Thomas said his focus is on quality food for the kids.

“Our big focus is that kids are eating fresh, healthy and scratch-made foods,” Thomas said. “I would say 95 percent of what we serve is fresh or homemade. We do fresh fruits and vegetables on the salad bar, home-style meals and make sure the kids are introduced to new fruits and vegetables as much as we can when they are in season.”

Thomas purchases food from Food Service of America (FSA), People’s Market, local gardens, Spokane Produce and the Rennaker Ranch.

“We try to get as much local as possible,” he said. “I just purchased a whole cow from the Rennaker Ranch to use. Having that local beef is pretty awesome.”

This is year three for Thomas. The first two years were spent assessing kid’s preferences and this year he has implemented a six week menu rotation schedule using that information.

In the Darby cafeteria, Monday’s are pasta days, Tuesdays are Mexican food (tacos, nachos), Wednesdays are Asian food (sweet and sour chicken, lo mein), Thursdays are home cooked meals (turkey, meatloaf, mashed potatoes, fresh rolls) and Fridays are cook’s choice.

“Whatever we want to try something new that’s the day we implement it into the menu for them to try out to see if they like it,” Thomas said. “If they don’t like it we’ll try something else, if they like it we’ll fit it in the schedule somewhere.”

The results are healthier students and staff and less waste. At the end of lunch periods three garbage cans are about on fourth filled.

Milk is rarely wasted because the Darby kitchen serves bulk milk rather than individual cartons.

“The kids are drinking more milk because they don’t like the way it tastes out of cartons,” Thomas said. “Milk is all-you-can-drink and if they want two or three glasses that’s fine. We probably save $600 a month doing it this way. All of the milk is purchased from the grocery store next door so we’re keeping that money in the community.”

Thomas said his budget is a little tighter than previous years but he is making it work.

“We haven’t had to make any big changes as far as quality of meals,” Thomas said. “We sacrificed in having less paper products and plastic utensils. We make cuts other places rather than in our breakfasts, salad bars or lunches.”

Every day the salad bar, with potato salad, coleslaw, bread and butter and vegetables, is all you can eat in addition to the planned meal. Thomas and his staff make “grab and go” lunches (hot and cold) for grades 7-12 and fresh homemade soup every day filled with all the nutrition components — vegetables and proteins, for all grades.

“We try to encourage kids to eat what is on their plate first before they get soup, we control waste that way,” Thomas said. “We expanding their variety and encouraging them to eat as many fresh fruits and vegetables as they can.”

The cafeteria is a fun place to spend time with seasonal decorations made by younger art students, the ceiling tiles painted by the high school art students, family dinners with staff and live music provided by kitchen staff member Bill Giltner happens three times a year.

“It is fun here, we have the music going on to give the kids a restaurant atmosphere and we have nice friendly faces when they come to pump up their day,” Thomas said. “It is all about their day, they are our customers and the ones we cater to, if they are happy we are happy.”

Montana’s other healthy heroes are Adrian Advincula, Bozeman; Chris Coburn, Bozeman, FAST (Food Access and Sustainability Team) Blackfeet – Browning; Kurt Marthaller, Butte; Stacey Rossmiller and Edward Christensen, Missoula; and Robert Worthy, Helena.

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