A Bovine Budding Tradition: For nearly eight years, locally sourced Titan Beef has fueled Thayer Central

A Bovine Budding Tradition: For nearly eight years, locally sourced Titan Beef has fueled Thayer Central

By Tyler Dahlgren

Thayer Central wasn’t the first to enhance its lunch offerings by infusing locally sourced beef into the menu, but the small school in Hebron helped kick off a mighty cool trend in August of 2015.

That’s when a group of Thayer County ranchers learned of a similar program in Bridgeport and teamed with the local grocer and the school district to launch “Titan Beef”, a program that’s since inspired similar-sized schools across the state to do the same.

Rob Marsh was the first to float the idea out there. He picked up the phone and called a couple of fellow cattle farmers in the county. They were hesitant at first, as was the insurance agent from State Farm, who vouched to only back the project if it was certain to be sustainable. 

“We were kind of thinking, ‘This will never work,’” said Belvidere rancher Lenny Bowman. “And Rob said, ‘Of course it’ll work.’”

That was before they knew that Rob Marsh could make anything work, Bowman said, hinting at his steadfast efforts to bring The Cattlemen’s Ball, Nebraska’s largest cancer research fundraiser, to Thayer County in 2018. 

They took a leap. Word spread quickly. Steve Anderson, who owns Hebron Central Market, was enthusiastic about the program from the jump, storing the Titan Beef in its own freezer in his downtown store. The meat locker in Diller has helped out, too. Looking back, that was a major win. 

“This does not work without Steve,” said Bowman. “He’s gone over and beyond in terms of storing, talking to the school’s nutritionist constantly, delivering the supplies himself to the school. Without him, I don’t know how this works. I really don’t.”

For Anderson, it was a no-brainer. Like most folks in Thayer County, it doesn’t take much persuasion when it comes to the well-being of the community’s youth.

“I do it for the kids,” Anderson said. “Without the kids, we have no future. Without a future, I’m not around. Nutrition is important. It keeps you focused. The better quality of meat they have, the better the protein and the better their health is going to be. I was all over it because of the kids. And it was a good, sustainable program. It wasn’t a one-and-done type of thing.”

Eight years and thousands of satisfied customers later, it’s safe to say their well-measured journey has been a sweeping success. This is cattle country, after all, and Titan Beef embodies what makes this community special.

“The community came together for their local public school, for their kids and their grandkids,” said rancher Gregg Wiedel. “It was overwhelming.”

Wiedel can wax poetic about the nutritional benefits of Titan Beef. Before the program launched, the beef being served was just not good, he said bluntly. If a student is hungry, it makes learning nearly impossible.

“Beef has 10 essential vitamins in a three ounce serving,” Wiedel said. “The zinc in beef, that’s for immune systems, and we all know how quickly colds can spread in schools. The iron in beef helps oxygen go to your muscles, which helps keep all students going. Protein, obviously, is good for everybody, and combined with the vegetables, breads and fruits, helps to balance a meal.”

Since the meat is all donated, money stays in the nutrition budget, allowing the district to put higher quality produce on the table. The school sources vegetables straight from the farmer’s market as opposed to the stuff that comes from cans, and was able to purchase a large convection stove with saved funds.

You should see the salad bar. It does Ruby Tuesday’s justice.

“The kids like the salad bar,” said Bowman. “And if you can get a kid to say he likes a salad bar, you’ve done something right.”

The cooks, who serve Titan Beef at least twice-a-week, have appreciated the upgrade in ingredients, too.

“The cooks like to cook with higher quality food,” said Wiedel. “They like to see the smile on a kid’s face when he or she gets that hamburger or pizza on their plate and they cannot wait to sit down and eat it. The cooks love those smiles.”

Waste has gone down, too. When the program launched, a mother from another district came in to observe, and was astonished when not a single serving was chucked in the trash.

“What it boils down to is the fact that it just cooks better,” said food service manager Jennifer Waldmeier. “It smells better. It tastes better. There’s a lot less grease. We see a lot more students come through for seconds, especially at the high school level.”

The students know where the food comes from too, and that’s an important byproduct of Titan Beef. Coincidentally, the program launched around the same time that FFA really took off at Thayer Central. The two are intertwined, naturally, and Wiedel said the school has done an exceptional job in the area of agriculture education since Titan Beef’s inception.

“By having kids involved in this program, they’re able to defend agriculture, and Nebraska’s all about agriculture,” said Anderson. “This opened a door. It made them more knowledgeable about their food and where it comes from and how we handle beef. It’s taught them that healthy animals make a better product down the road.”

When a kid’s at the grocery store with Mom or Dad, they’re usually clamoring for the classics. But because of Titan Beef, they’re ditching the frozen chicken nuggets and reaching instead for a steak or a pound of fresh beef. That’s the hope, anyway.

“If a child is used to having meals with certain types of food, fresh meat, veggies, whatever it is, that’s their routine,” said Thayer Central superintendent Dr. Beth Johnsen. “As they get older, they continue to eat that kind of food, maybe expanding a little bit more on their choices. By the time they become adults, that’s their practice. They look forward to having quality food. It sets a trend of healthy eating habits.”

If you’ve tasted the beef served at Thayer Central, it’s not so much of a pipedream.

“I would throw our Titan Beef up against anybody, because of the quality and the consistency,” said Anderson. “No farmer’s going to bring a cow in that’s not up to par.”

Around here, to do so would be borderline blasphemous. 

“They’re not going to donate an animal they wouldn’t feed their own family,” said Anderson. “You know that animal is top quality, a state champion in the arena. And there’s a sense of pride for the kids, too. They know when their dad, or their granddad, is donating a cow.”

There’s somewhere in the ballpark of 40 cattle farmers within the school district lines, Marsh predicts. Over 30 have donated a cow. Once they do so, their name goes on a banner that hangs in the school’s gymnasium for all to see.

“They want their name on that banner,” said Marsh, who has visited curious schools to speak about Titan Beef and its influence on Thayer Central.

The story of Titan Beef is a prime example of school and community collaboration.

“We’re promoting agriculture and helping kids at the same time,” Bowman said. “There’s a sense of pride when people know they can work together.”

The proof is in the pay-off, which, in this case, is rather delicious. This isn’t your average school cafeteria, and they’re not serving up your average school lunches.

“It just speaks volumes about what rural America and rural Nebraska is all about,” said Dr. Johnsen. “It’s the people of the community doing what they can to provide the best for kids at a school.”