Two fishermen that partner with Fishermen Feeding Mainers. The Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association has purchased over 130 tons of seafood since it launched the program in October 2020. Contributed / Shannon Kristine

School cafeterias might be known mostly for pizza and chicken nuggets, but some Midcoast students are pairing their milk cartons with freshly caught pollock, hake and monkfish stew, thanks to the work of a Maine nonprofit.

Twenty-two school districts in southern Maine, including Brunswick, have participated in the Fishermen Feeding Mainers program, which allows food banks, schools and other groups to order fresh fish at no cost, according to Robin Kerber, the Department of Education’s Farm and Sea to School coordinator.

“Most of our students’ exposure to fishing is something fried with bread crumbs on it,” said Scott Smith, Brunswick’s director of facilities, grounds and food service. “Serving fresh fish in the past was a challenge just because of the cost, so having this program was a winner for us.”

Posters, like these at Brunswick’s Coffin School, help educate kids about Maine’s seafood industry. Contributed / Scott Smith

The Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, a nonprofit advocacy group, developed Fishermen Feeding Mainers in October 2020 as a way to support an industry that had been decimated by the pandemic, Executive Director Ben Martens said.

As restaurants closed, the demand for fresh fish plummeted, dragging prices at the Portland Fish Exchange down 70%, according to Martens.

Fishermen Feeding Mainers has helped rebuild the market by purchasing fish from Maine crews, passing them to local businesses for preparation and then donating the catch to groups devoted to fighting food insecurity, Martens said. The program has been funded through a combination of federal COVID-19 relief money, grants from local and national foundations and over $800,000 in individual donations.


“We really had our community come together around this project,” Martens said. “People really understood and saw the need to support the working waterfront and the fishermen, and also to feed people local, good food.”

Martens and his team soon set their sights on schools. Partnering with districts allowed the team to further combat food insecurity while also bringing in a group largely unfamiliar with healthy seafood and the Mainers who produce it.

“We’re trying to reintroduce our local communities to the fishermen who are feeding them,” Martens said. “Getting students exposed to (seafood) early, getting them comfortable with it – those are ways to help people make good eating decisions through life.”

Some districts have worked with Marten’s team to familiarize students with the new food through educational resources like posters and recipe cards. By helping kids and their families understand how food is caught and how to prepare it, the group hopes to develop a generation of locally-minded consumers.

This model fits other efforts to promote local foods in schools, according to Kerber, who serves as the link between Fishermen Feeding Mainers and the partner districts. Programs like the Local Foods Fund, which reimburses schools for a portion of the money they use to buy Maine produce, meats and dairy products, encourage districts to offer meals that are healthy, sustainable and good for the state’s economy.

Martens hopes to keep the program running even after federal relief money dries up. Yet even if that proves impossible, Kerber said she’s optimistic that schools will continue to support Maine fishermen by offering fresh fish in cafeterias.

“It’s a great way to connect a huge part of Maine’s identity and culture to our children,” she said. “It supports our state, and I think that’s something that everybody can get behind.”

Comments are not available on this story.