Mary, Jodie, Kimberly. Three women connecting fish, fishermen and Mainers facing food insecurity. Those connections have now turned 210,000 pounds of fish into over 280,000 meals for over 60 recipient groups. These groups range from schools to food banks and community groups, like the Wabanaki REACH and the New England Arab American Organization, from Kennebunkport to Millinocket.
The numbers are impressive, but they don’t tell the story. The story is about meeting needs. These three women, along with a complex web of other community partners, have pulled together to serve the needs of Maine communities during the pandemic. But they aren’t stopping there.
The program is Fishermen Feeding Mainers (FFM) and the organization behind it is Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association (MCFA). That’s where Mary comes in. Mary Hudson is MCFA’s Fisheries Program director. MCFA is a local non-profit that promotes sustainable fishing practices in the Gulf of Maine and supports small boat fishermen and waterfront communities. Mary works with fishermen along the Maine coast to promote sustainable fishing practices that support them as well as coastal communities and the ecosystems in the Gulf of Maine. FFM addresses all these goals – albeit in a new way for the organization.
“Before the pandemic, MCFA hadn’t been involved in addressing hunger insecurity,” says Mary. “But, when the prices of seafood fell to the point that the fishermen we work with no longer could even afford to go fishing, we thought outside the box.” That box included some of the usual players on the Portland waterfront – those that make up the complex seafood supply chain that links boat to plate. In an oversimplified way, a fisherman sells to a buyer who then sends it to a processor who then sells it to a consumer or a restaurant.
One of the primary links in the “seafood supply chain” is the Portland Fish Exchange. That’s where Jodie comes in. Jodie York took over as the General Manager at the Exchange in May of 2020 – not an easy or simple time to work in the seafood industry. The Portland Fish Exchange is a facility on the Portland waterfront where boats can offload and sort fish. It also provides a platform for buyers from Maine to New York to purchase fish.
On a typical Monday, Jodie welcomes Mary in to bid on the fish that landed that morning. Mary is hoping to bid with a price that is high enough to fairly compensate the fishermen she works with, but also can provide ample meals for the clients for which she coordinates weekly deliveries of fresh seafood. “It’s really a seamless program,” says Jodie. “We provide the platform, and someone picks up the fish and out the door it goes.” The program has also provided a more predictable and stable market for fishermen that has resulted in boats deciding to land in Portland that previously had been landing elsewhere. “Mary has been a great asset for us in terms of encouraging vessels to land here,” she adds. “For sure we have several vessels that wouldn’t have landed here without that encouragement.”
One of the first clients to receive some of the fish that Mary bought at Jodie’s auction, was Kimberly. Kimberly Gates is the Executive Director at the Bath Area Food Bank. The food bank includes a pantry and a soup kitchen that typically serve about 200 families per month. During the pandemic, that number increased to over 500. At the peak of this increase, Kimberly met with Mary, and they coordinated to receive fish through the nascent FFM program. That was part of a larger partnership with the Good Shepherd Food Bank, an area non-profit dedicated to getting nutritious food to those in need throughout Maine. They have the capacity to receive and store the donated fish for distribution to smaller community food banks. The donations have been very popular so far. “Without Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, we would never have had free seafood,” says Kimberly. We haven’t been able to offer Maine seafood to our clients for the last 20 years because the cost has been too high. We had a woman who came in at the start of the pandemic. We gave her toilet paper and haddock and she cried because she was so happy,” she added.
Fast forward nearly a year and a half and Kimberly was the first to order the newly introduced Maine Coast Monkfish Stew, a value-added product created through a collaboration between MCFA and Hurricane Soup Company in Greene, Maine. The stew utilizes locally caught monkfish, an admittedly ugly and often unrecognized species that can be difficult to market but is quite delicious. The idea behind the stew is not only to provide a market for this fish, but also to create a revenue stream that will support the FFM program.
Initially the Fishermen Feeding Mainers program was funded by a combination of great running and individual donations. That totaled over $1 million dollars – an impressive expression of the generosity of the community to support such an effort. At this point, the interest in the program continues to grow as more schools, food banks and community groups want to participate – in addition to the already-existing partnerships. “The monkfish stew is a way to, once again, address two needs – get a fair price for the fishermen and keep this program going. “One thing about monkfish is that it’s a sustainably harvested fish that yields a lot of meat as compared to other Gulf of Maine species. It’s also a species that isn’t familiar to many people and they might not otherwise try it. So, by making a soup, we can get a lot of value from the catch at a price point that is meaningful to the fisherman, helps us support this program, and introduces monkfish to new audiences,” says Mary.
On a blustery day ahead of a Nor’easter, Kimberley passed out the first bags of frozen Maine Coast Monkfish Stew to its clients. The weather was perfect for a hearty seafood stew, to be sure, but the question was whether people would like it. The initial feedback suggests that they do. “I would order a cup of it at a restaurant,” said one client. “It’s delicious and flavorful,” said another.
From here, the goal is to continue these partnerships and to build upon them. Jodie will be continuing to bring the fish in from the boats to the Portland Fish Exchange. Mary will be continuing to bid on and buy those fish. And Kimberly will be continuing to serve it to Bath Area Food Bank clients as well as hand it out with their grocery order both as filets and as soup. And, this fall, MCFA will be marketing Maine Coast Monkfish Stew to support the Fishermen Feeding Mainers program.
To learn more or donate to this program, visit: www.mainecoastfishermen.org. And watch for the launch of the stew on their Instagram account: @mainecoastfishermen.