Local Lunch: New England Cafeterias Embrace Gulf of Maine Seafood

Perspectives | Dec 31, 2015

by Kyle Foley

Sustainable Seafood Senior Program Manager

A man in a white chef's gown and a woman in a gray blouse stand smiling in front of local seafood on a cafeteria table.
Local seafood is making its way into school cafeterias around Maine.

When you think about cafeteria food, you probably think of mystery meat and instant mashed potatoes. Most of us grew up waiting listlessly in line for a scoop of the lunch “special”, which was usually anything but.

Today’s lunch trays, however, bear little resemblance to the meals we remember. Institutions are catering more and more to customers demanding local food. Diners at these institutions are asking pointed questions like, “Is this good for me?” and “Where did this come from?” That’s good news for the lunch line, and it’s even better for local fishing communities.

Institutions such as universities and school systems are the perfect antidote for some of the fishing industry’s current ailments. Heavy restrictions keep fishermen from catching cod, a traditionally popular species. But many equally delicious, though less familiar species — including cape shark (also known as dogfish), mackerel, and Acadian redfish — are still available for responsible harvest. When institutions order large quantities of these underloved species, it helps fishermen fetch a better price for their catch.

Meanwhile, schools across the country are looking for ways to serve healthier meals. They are attracted to Gulf of Maine seafood as a lean, affordable protein.

College students in particular are demanding healthy food that comes from, and benefits, their local communities. In this way, students are demonstrating the most important step individuals can take to support sustainable seafood — asking for it. Demand from this next generation of seafood consumers ripples throughout their individual campuses and beyond.

Accordingly, participation in our Gulf of Maine Responsibly Harvested® program has skyrocketed in the past year. Regional grocery stores such as Hannaford, Shaw’s, and Big Y have participated for years, and the recent influx of new institutional partners has grown the program to over 20 Affiliates.

Affiliates of the Gulf of Maine Responsibly Harvested program provide their customers with seafood that is traceable to fishing communities in the Gulf of Maine region and meets important criteria around responsible harvest. To fulfill our Gulf of Maine Responsibly Harvested promise, we ensure any seafood labeled by our Affiliates has been purchased from licensed suppliers.

The institutions that have made the biggest commitment to Gulf of Maine fishing communities are Colby College and the University of New England. These schools have recently achieved Champion status within the Gulf of Maine Responsibly Harvested® program — a designation earned through one of two achievements:

  • 100% of the white fish they purchase is Gulf of Maine Responsibly Harvested, or
  • They always have Gulf of Maine Responsibly Harvested seafood on their campuses, on their restaurants’ menus, or in their stores.

Both Colby College and the University of New England (UNE) are sourcing 100% Gulf of Maine Responsibly Harvested white fish — a category which references fish species with lean, white flesh. In the Gulf of Maine, that includes haddock, pollock, whiting, redfish, and others.

At a time when the U.S. imports 91% of our seafood, this accomplishment represents an incredible commitment to the Gulf of Maine region. We know other Affiliates are pursuing Champion status, and we cannot overstate the significance of these efforts to our fishing communities.

Our institutional partners use their powerful voices to educate and engage their communities. Young people, especially, are learning about the fantastic resource in their backyard. In these places, cafeterias no longer conjure a turn of the stomach. In today’s lunch lines, we should expect healthy food that supports a thriving coastal economy.

When it comes to Gulf of Maine seafood, we’ve removed the mystery from the meat. This effort from our institutional partners means customers will have the opportunity to eat a healthy meal and support local fishing families. With this attention and commitment, our regional seafood economy will thrive long into the future.

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