Up-Island schools in Chilmark and West Tisbury are the first elementary schools in the country to offer a “local catch of the day” program at school lunch, where students can eat locally sourced and sustainably harvested fish from Boston-based regional seafood purveyor Red’s Best.
The new local food initiative, spearheaded by West Tisbury cafeteria director Jenny Devivo, takes place each Friday. Students learn how their food got to their plate, as Ms. Devivo describes the fish they are eating, as well as how, where, when, and by whom it was caught.
On Friday, Dec. 2, Ms. Devivo and her staff made seafood chowder with pollock from Chatham that was caught that Tuesday by local fishermen. She explained that the pollock were caught through gillnetting, a process that drops a large wall of netting straight into the water. The chowder also had potatoes from Morning Glory Farm and herbs from the school garden.
“Fish chowder is one of my favorites, and this is my favorite fish chowder I’ve ever had,” West Tisbury fifth grader Tegan Gale told The Times on Friday.
Tegan is no stranger to good chowder, either. His uncle, fisherman Alec Gale, owns the Menemsha Fish House, right next to Larsen’s, and is also a part-owner of seafood wholesaler Red’s Best. The company supports a network of fishermen, with about 350 local fishermen and a total of 1,000 regionally.
The company, according to its website, was founded in 2006 by Jared Auerbach, who worked on commercial fishing vessels in Alaska and Cape Cod in the early 2000s, and saw the impact of the industrialization of fishing on traditional fishing communities. The aim of Red’s Best continues to be focused on supporting the livelihoods of American fishermen while using sustainable practices.
In a phone conversation with The Times on Friday, Mr. Gale said the goal was to get local fish to all Island schools, and they’re also working on providing fish to the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital.
“Going to school, you always had the worst food,” Mr. Gale recalled. “That’s what got us thinking. Why are we not selling the stuff that we catch to the Island? Why is this not going to our kids?”
Thanks to people like Mr. Gale and Ms. Devivo, now it is. Ms. Devivo told The Times during Friday’s lunch that she uses local produce, dairy, and eggs as much as possible. Seafood was more challenging to get in large quantities, even on the Island. But now, she’s found a way with Red’s Best to bring locally sourced fish into her kitchen.
“We’re very, very lucky today,” Ms. Devivo told fifth and sixth grade students as they ate their chowder. “Not only is fish an amazing source of protein and amazing for your brain, but we’re connecting the sea, the land, and everything that we stand for together.”
The idea for “local catch of the day” was put into motion in early November, when Ms. Devivo and Island Grown Schools program leader Noli Taylor went to the Massachusetts Farm and Sea to School conference in Leominster, where nearly 400 people met to find ways to increase access to healthy and locally sourced food at schools.
Massachusetts has been a leader on this front, with a successful statewide program since 2004. According to the farm-to-school census from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 171 school districts in the state are providing 422,000 students with healthy and locally sourced food.
It was there that Ms. Devivo connected with Red’s Best, and she said the company “blew her mind.” They were providing seafood for Harvard University, Boston University, and Boston Children’s Hospital. But it was their innovative use of technology that intrigued her most. The company uses traceability software with quick-response (QR) codes on the packaging — the black-and-white square barcodes that can be scanned on a smartphone — that electronically track the seafood from the ocean to a person’s plate, ensuring the fish is fresh and caught locally.
That sort of transparency allows students to learn the importance of knowing where the food they’re eating comes from. Jack Lionette, a sixth grade student at West Tisbury, who, like Tegan Gale, also has an uncle who works for Red’s Best, spoke to The Times about the significance of locally sourced food.
“I think it’s important to have local food that we know where it’s from, because if you go to a grocery store, you don’t really know where it’s from and you don’t know who caught it,” Jack said. “Where here we can eat fish that we know who caught it, where it’s from, and that it’s really good fish for you.”
“It helps local fishermen and farmers,” Silas Abrams, a seventh grader at West Tisbury, said about eating locally grown food.
“It’s healthy, and it’s where we came from,” Tegan told The Times.
It’s responses like these that make Ms. Devivo teary-eyed when talking about her local food initiative. She said it gives students a voice. They ask questions about what they’re eating and where it came from, and they learn about the importance of nutrition, sustainability, and eating locally. Ms. Devivo said the goal is to enable students to incorporate those things into their everyday lives, so the belief stays with them as they grow up — that locally and sustainably sourced food is good food.