By Simca Horwitz, Massachusetts Farm to School

Photo credit: North Coast Sedfood

At school districts around the country, farm to school programs are looking beyond the field and out to sea. From coastal New England to the Alaskan shores, schools are incorporating locally caught seafood into school meal programs as a healthy protein whose purchase strengthens coastal communities.

In Massachusetts, expanding school food procurement to include locally caught fish is a sensible opportunity – after all, our state is home to many of the country’s oldest fishing communities. The fishing industry has faced significant hardship in recent years though, with strict catch limits imposed on some of the most popular species of fish.  While fishermen are making strong efforts to fish sustainably, catching only abundant species, most consumers are unfamiliar and uninterested in these available seafood options. Schools provide the perfect outlet for these underutilized fish, offering a new market for struggling fishermen and an affordable protein alternative in the lunchroom.  

The partnership between Gloucester Public School District and a local Community Supported Fishery is a shining example of sea to school success. A small city north of Boston, Gloucester has been an important center of the fishing industry for hundreds of years. So when Food Service Director Phil Padulsky joined the school district and saw Alaskan Pollock fish sticks on the menu, he knew their had to be a better fresh and local alternative.

Thanks to a few introductions from community partners, Padulsky was able to form a relationship with nearby Cape Ann Fresh Catch (CAFC), a local non-profit and the country’s largest Community Supported Fishery. Together, they’re bringing fresh seafood that’s landed in small fishing boats off Gloucester straight into the cafeteria. But the partnership is more than just procurement oriented. CAFC also conducts fish preparing trainings for school food service staff, hosts student taste tests and offers extensive promotional materials for the district to use.

And the efforts and perseverance have paid off: Gloucester now offers locally caught fish at its high school every other Friday, and is aiming to expand the program to the district’s elementary schools.

Photo Credit: North Coast Seafood

Gloucester and Cape Ann Fresh Catch aren’t the only sea to school partnership in Massachusetts. North Coast Seafoods, a local seafood distributor, is working with dozens of school districts to help identify and procure appropriate species of fish for the school setting. For example, underutilized species such as Acadian Redfish and New England Sole are abundantly available and sustainably fished in waters around Massachusetts, making these affordable for schools at under 75 cents per serving.

Another economical seafood option is the odd sized pieces of fish generated from the mechanized filleting process. These special cuts can be used to make dishes like fish burgers, fish tacos, Coconut Crusted Acadian Redfish and “Fish-in-Chips” (wild caught Gulf of Maine Redfish in a low-fat Cape Cod Potato Chip crumb). What was once a wasted food product is now a healthy, delicious meal that’s easy on the wallet and has students coming back for more.

Chicopee Public Schools knows this is true. With 65% of students qualifying for free and reduced price meals, Chicopee found that regional seafood was one of the most economical protein options for its cafeterias.  So, it recently became the first school district to source 100% sustainably harvested seafood from the nearby Gulf of Maine, giving its 7,800 students regular access to affordable, sustainable and nutritious meals. There are over 30 districts like Chicopee in Massachusetts now serving fresh, sustainable and regional seafood.

With effective partnerships, a transparent supply chain, and a little creativity and perseverance, these sea to school efforts are bringing fresh, local foods to thousands of students, and providing robust economic opportunities for the sustainable fishing industry throughout the New England region. From Gloucester to Nantucket, this is the next exciting wave of our Massachusetts farm to school story.