Fishermen Team up With Food Banks to Lend a Hand

Catches from coast to coast are going to feed hungry families.

(Dan Logan /

Fish is a very healthy source of protein and the coasts of the US are brimming with cod, haddock, and shellfish galore. But since fish doesn’t stay fresh long, it has to be cooked or frozen, so aside from canned tuna or salmon, food banks do not get a lot of donations of fish.

The coronavirus pandemic has changed that. With restaurants and cafeterias closing – the normal markets for fresh fish – and the need for assistance growing because of job losses, food assistance programs have begun teaming up with local fisherman according to National Public Radio (NPR). This partnership is helping the fishermen stay afloat, the local economy, and the people who need food.

The Greater Boston Food Bank used to have a four- or five-week supply of food but then the pandemic hit and by late May the organization that feeds more than 500,000 people was down to one-week surplus at a time when need was increasing. “That's because the food bank normally distributes about 1 million pounds of food a week, and that became 2 1/2 million pounds of food a week, Catherine D'Amato, president and CEO of the organization told NPR.

While the US congress increased funding for food banks, and there were increased donations of fresh produce, milk, and meat; this did not spread to the fishing industry because of the complications involved in using fresh fish.

But this changed in the spring of 2020, when the Massachusetts department of agriculture made a connection between the food bank and grant makers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and others including Catch Together, a nonprofit organization that supports fishermen and fishing communities. The  department had already contacted local fishermen about developing a traditional New England chowder made of haddock which is plentiful in Cape Cod. The grants paid the fishermen and provided seed money for a local food manufacturer to process, freeze, and deliver family size portions to food banks.

“We worked with the manufacturer to create a nutrient-rich recipe and to date, we've received 48,000 pounds. And now we have started to purchase the product,” D'Amato said; “It's very tasty and popular.” The new chowder is full of vegetables, very healthy, and easy to use.

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Catch Together’s founder Paul Parker said that when the pandemic hit, they began funding small-scale fishing organizations like fisheries and consumer markets to help keep them open. “The second phase of our work was to begin doing outreach to commercial fishing organizations and to food banks around the country and try to learn about places where we could help provide fishermen fair wages to go fishing while simultaneously providing great, healthy food for people that needed it,” Parker said.

Catch Together gave a $53,000 grant to Commercial Fisherman of Santa Barbara to get 7,000 pounds of flash frozen Pacific fish into local food banks. It was a big hit. The organization also set up innovative programs that provided sockeye salmon in Alaska and local shrimp in Mississippi to local food banks to help food insecure people.

In Mississippi, Catch Together worked with Extra Table and the Mississippi Commercial Fisheries United (MCFU) to help the local shrimpers who were already struggling before the pandemic hit according to The Sun Herald.  The pandemic and the closing of restaurants made it much worse.

Catch Together and other organizations provided grants that allowed MCFU to purchase $50,000 worth of shrimp that was processed and frozen at a Mississippi plant and then donated to Extra Table to be distributed to needy people.

“We’re seeing so many people who have never been in a food pantry line are ending up there because of covid,” Martha Allen, Extra Table’s executive director, told The Sun Herald. “To know that we are able to help people who continuously put food on the tables in Mississippi and support another business through feeding hungry families in Mississippi is an incredible feeling.”

In November, 2020, local Florida fishermen donated 20,000 pounds of fresh grouper and snapper to the St. Petersburg clinic with funding from Catch Together and run by the Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholders’ Alliance,  according to press release. The clinic used to see about 100 families per day but due to the pandemic, that has increased to 350 per day. The clinic has a drive through food pantry that distributes the fish.

Other innovative programs included selling directly to consumers instead of restaurants at a fish market in Santa Barbara, California according to the NPR. The fishermen put up plastic film barriers between themselves and the buyers and all have to wear masks. There is even a fish cleaning and filleting station. These programs are helping fishermen stay afloat and are getting nutritious food to the people who need it the most.

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