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"We try to do a mix of things that people will recognize, so that they don't think it's all kale chips in our machine."

- Sarah Tarka-Baer

Three years ago, the vending machine in a rec room upstairs at the Missoula Family YMCA was stocked with candy and other sugary snacks.

Stop by now, and you'll find Muscle Milk, Fig Bars and Veggie Straws in a sleek refrigerated unit. When they're in season, you can find apples from Corvallis or clementines.

The good-for-you choices are there thanks to Alex Baer and Sarah Tarka-Baer, a Missoula couple who started Missoula Healthy Vending three years ago to get residents interested in quality snacks.

"We try to do a mix of things that people will recognize, so that they don't think it's all kale chips in our machine. They may see a brand that they're used to eating, and it may be a gateway for them to try some of the other even healthier things," Sarah said.

The two were athletes in college, and were inspired to start their Human Healthy Vending franchise after the birth of their first child.

It's even more important to eat healthy when you have a family, and they know how busy it can get.

"We're certainly not slowing down since we had our son, so we certainly understand that lifestyle," Sarah said.

They were one of the early franchisees for Human, a startup based in Los Angeles.

To take that metro-area model to a small town, they had to learn to adapt - finding which products work in which locations. Every location they serve, for instance, has a custom selection. If something isn't selling, they need to adjust and find another product.

For instance, they found smaller businesses and smaller schools were interested in offering healthy snacks, but didn't have enough employees or kids to warrant a full refrigerated machine.

So a year ago, they spun off a second business called Missoula Healthy Delivery that serves them.


The two have been active in the community, offering themselves as a resource.

For instance, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released new guidelines last year on the types of and nutritional quality of snacks that can be served in schools.

"I would say we've really been on the forefront of that in Missoula. We were testing out those new products before the rules were even in place," Sarah said.

Four out of their 12 machines are in schools, so they've worked with administrators and educators on what can be offered.

Sarah has collaborated with Let's Move Missoula, the Eat Smart Missoula Coalition, and served on the Graduation Matters nutrition subcommittee and more.

The two order, stock and source the products themselves.

The latter requires research and travel, such as going to expos on new healthy products, and figuring out the logistics of getting items shipped to a new market like Missoula.

They've advised the national franchise on working in smaller markets as well.

As an example, they sell wholesale to some groups, such as the MAPS Media Institute in Hamilton, which teaches kids cutting-edge media skills.

When the Montana Special Olympics held its state Summer Games in Missoula this year, the two delivered some 5,000 snacks for the athletes.

They refer to the switch to healthy options as a "cultural change," and are committed to showing people that it can be done.

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