Last spring, Oakland Unified School District introduced a fish tostada: pieces of roasted white fish topped with cilantro-lime slaw and a Sriracha-spiked sour cream, all on top of a giant crunchy tortilla.
It was received well, says Alexandra Emmott, farm-to-table supervisor for the district. About 7,900 students chose the meal, more than 35 percent of the total meals served daily.
Oakland and a number of other California school districts are reinventing fish-centered meals in the lunchroom through the Bay2Tray program, a Monterey-based school lunch initiative that makes local fish accessible to school districts. The program is run by the nonprofit Real Good Fish, founded by Alan Lovewell.
Local fish is nothing new for the entrepreneur. Lovewell grew up in a fishing family, and since 2012 he’s been connecting Monterey consumers with products straight off local fishing boats through a year-round “CSF,” a CSA-style program that delivers fresh seasonal fish to more than a thousand subscribing members every week. The program’s fish species roster includes 24 products from their partner fisheries.
It was clear from the program’s early success that it was filling a hole, providing a needed financial boost to local fishermen and connecting consumers with products from the ocean. But Lovewell was aware that many in the Monterey community couldn’t afford the higher price for local fish.
“The members of our community with the least access were children,” Lovewell says. “We wanted to do something about that.”
So when Lovewell learned that hundreds of thousands of pounds of Pacific grenadier is discarded every year, he knew he’d found a “trash fish” with the potential to bridge the local fish gap for students.
Grenadiers, by-catch from the black cod harvest, are white-fleshed fish with good texture and a mild, versatile flavor. The deep-sea fish, which die from the change in pressure before reaching the boat, are routinely tossed back into the ocean. That’s because grenadiers are a marketing challenge. They have bulging eyes and long, eel-like tails, qualities suited for life in the deep but not for the aesthetics the general public demands.
“Rather than trying to put it on white-tablecloth restaurant menus, we saw an opportunity to create access for kids,” he says.
Finding a use for the fish solves a number of problems: schools have a local ingredient to replace a less sustainable foreign product (the common fish stick is made with fish from Alaska, Asia or Russia), the system creates a new funding stream for local fishermen and kids have an ongoing opportunity to eat food from the ocean in their own backyard.
A USDA grant helped them connect the dots. In 2014 they partnered with Monterey Peninsula Unified School District to serve Pacific grenadier. More than 60 percent of district students qualify for free or reduced lunches.
Stephanie Lip, nutrition services supervisor for the district, says they menued Pacific grenadier at district high schools through the 2015-2016 school year every other month, served as either fish tacos or chipotle fish burrito bowls.
But Bay2Tray goes beyond supplying fish. The program also brings local fishermen into the schools to educate kids about Monterey’s history as a fishing community and the ocean as a source of food, jobs and recreation.
“So much of our program is about connecting people to the ocean in our backyard,” Lovewell says.
When the Oakland district planned an educational program the same week as it offered the fish tostada, more students chose the dish.
In addition to Oakland, current Bay2Tray partners include Santa Clara Unified School District, Pacific Valley School, Tustin Unified School District and the University of California at Santa Cruz. Monterey Peninsula USD plans to restart the program in the near future.
Today, the Bay2Tray program operates through grants and small donations collected from CSF members through the Upwell program, which helps subsidize the cost of the fish for schools. Schools pay a five-dollar per-pound industrial rate for the fish.
Real Good Fish processes grenadiers at its own facility. After filleting the fish, the company glazes, individually quick-freezes and stores them. In the freezer, they have a shelf life of one year. Performance Food Group and Gold Star Foods handle distribution for the schools.
Lovewell says the group plans to scale the program to reach more schools and universities, partner with more fishermen and work with more fishing communities to build supply chains.
“The main success of this organization is building partnerships,” he says. “We know that we can have a huge impact here, locally, if we all work together.”