Fishermen are teaming up with food banks to help hungry families

As the COVID-19 pandemic hit hard in the spring, fishermen watched their markets dry up. Restaurants and cafeterias – usually the biggest buyers of fish – have significantly closed or reduced orders. The fishermen were not sure if they would be paid for what they brought to the dock.

Meanwhile, as people lost their jobs, food banks began to see unprecedented demand for services. Things were getting desperate, with long queues for food aid in many states.

From these double crises a new idea was born. Food aid programs across the country have begun to connect with local fishermen to supply local seafood, many for the first time. And the arrangement seems to help fishermen, the economy and those in need of healthy food.

In Massachusetts, Greater Boston Food Bank, which serves more than 500,000 people who are unsure of food with its 600 network partners, was looking for ideas.

According to Catherine D’Amato, president and CEO, the network usually keeps on hand for four or five weeks in an emergency.

The pandemic hit until “the end of May … we found ourselves under a week of supplies and descending quickly,” she says. That’s because the food bank usually distributes about a million kilograms of food a week, and that has become 2 1/2 million kilograms of food a week, says D’Amato.

Although Congress and states increased funding for food banks and increased donations of fresh produce, meat, dairy, and shelf-stable products during the pandemic, this was not enough.

“For many years, we have wanted to be able to work with organizations in the fishing industry,” says D’Amato. But it is complex. Fishermen catch a lot of big fish, and food banks that might need it need products to be cut into small pieces so that customers can use them easily. They must also be fish they know and recognize.

Obstacles are too high in many places to make it work.

But this spring, the state Department of Agriculture linked the food bank with some donors to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and other entities. They talked to some local fishermen about developing a traditional pudding soup.

Haddock has a lot in Cape Cod Bay, but there’s not much demand for it because it’s pretty small and doesn’t charge well, according to the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance. In other words, it is perfect for soup.

The aid paid the fishermen for the catch and provided money from the seeds to a local producer for processing, freezing and delivering the soup to food banks in family meals.

“We worked with the manufacturer to make the nutrients and to date we have gained 48,000 pounds. And now we have started buying the product,” says D’Amato. “It’s very tasty and popular.”

Studies have shown that eating just one or two servings of seafood a week can reduce the risk of coronary death by up to 36%. And preliminary research on omega-3 fatty acids found in many species of fish can help treat or protect against age-related cognitive decline such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. It has also been shown that eating more specific types of fish reduces asthma symptoms in urban children exposed to pollution.

But many people aren’t sure how to cook fresh seafood, and that can be expensive if you have a budget. This may be why many feeding programs have not processed a lot of fresh fish.

“We handled, you know, your typical fish sticks or fish made in breadcrumbs,” says D’Amato – which she says is not necessarily the healthiest option.

But the new soup is full of vegetables and it’s easy – just heat it up and serve.

“Consumers are used to red meat, poultry in all shapes and forms. Pork is somehow further on the list. We offer products like tofu. … But fish lacked a component,” she says.

The soup, labeled “Small Boats, Great Taste,” helps feed families and keep fishermen in Massachusetts. Fishermen hope to sell it in retail stores in the next year, and D’Amato hopes to buy more soups this winter and expand to new seafood products for its customers.

In other parts of the country, local fishermen injured by COVID-19 are also starting to work to supply banks with food.

Paul Parker is the founder of Catch Together, a non-profit organization that works with small-scale fishermen to connect the local fishing industry with the local community. Catch Together has provided some of the grants for the chowder project and others across the country.

When the pandemic hit, “Our first round of funding was just to ensure that small-scale fishing organizations and their leadership were able to continue with their typical programming in 2020,” he says. That means things like fisheries management and keeping consumer markets open.

“The second phase of our work was to start helping commercial fishing organizations and food banks across the country and try to learn places where we could help fishermen secure fair wages for fishing, while providing great, healthy food for the people in need,” Parker says.

Catch Together has set out to support up to 10,000 fishermen to provide food for the million Americans in need this year. Innovative programs have been brought in that put local shrimp in food banks in Mississippi and deliver the salmon needed in Alaska.

Catch Together also awarded a $ 53,000 grant to commercial fisherman Santa Barbara. Fishermen worked with community partners this summer to invest 7,000 kilograms of frozen Pacific sea fish, yellow tail, grenadier, white sea bass and black cod in their local food bank.

It was a hit, and this winter they plan to expand the offering to include bringing fresh fish into soup kitchens as the pandemic continues, says Mike Nelson, commercial fisherman for Santa Barbara’s program officer.

Although COVID-19 caused many difficulties, it also created new opportunities for fishermen. Partnering with food is one part of that.

For fisherman Paul Teall, when his regular Los Angeles restaurant buyers stopped buying this fall because the county limited only the restaurant business, they sell directly to consumers in the small seafood market at Santa Barbara Pier has suddenly become much more important.

Teall is a longtime fisherman in Santa Barbara who sells a variety of seafood native to West Coast waters, including rockeries and a large sea snail called Kellet’s Whelk.

The seafood market has been open to the public for about 30 years. Once the pandemic began, people who had never come to market before began to show up, saying they didn’t want to risk shopping in stores, Teall says.

“We’ve seen a jump in sales – maybe double. So I think a lot more people feel comfortable buying outdoors,” Teall says.

Joseph and Melissa Garrigan of Garrigan Seafood Co. they say business has been better in the market lately. Among other things, they sell giant spider crabs and California lobsters.

The pandemic was “actually good for us. … [A] a lot of people go out and go, ‘Wow, I didn’t know that [market] was here. ‘And we feel like the community knows we’re here now,’ says Joseph Garrigan.

Fishermen have recently set up plastic film barriers between themselves and customers, and there is also a cleaning and filleting station. Everyone at the market must wear a protective face mask.

“We do everything in our power to keep customers safe and provide them with fresh food,” Teall says.

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