By Doreen Leggett
Senator Julian Cyr was at an event at the Chatham Fish Pier on a recent warm May day, pleased that with the pandemic receding he could speak without a mask, but troubled by one thing that hadn’t diminished; the pervasiveness of hunger.
“People are really struggling and continue to struggle,” he said. “I think it’s important to remember how much need we have on the Cape and Islands.”
Some of that need has been met through a partnership between Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance and Greater Boston Food Bank with state funding through the Massachusetts Emergency Food Assistance Program, MEFAP. Cyr, Representative Sarah Peake, as well as leadership from the Greater Boston Food Bank, Massachusetts Commissioner for the Department of Agricultural Resources Ashley Randle, and fishermen had gathered to celebrate the program and collaboration.
The Small Boats, Big Taste program has used $1.4 million in MEFAP funds to pay fishermen a fair price for their fish, pay Massachusetts businesses to process haddock and skate, and pay the chowder and stew maker Plenus Group, also in Massachusetts. Those efforts, launched by the Fishermen’s Alliance during COVID, have resulted in the Greater Boston Food Bank distributing almost 500,000 pounds of Haddock Chowder and Provencal Fish Stew to clients across the Commonwealth, including those served by pantries across Cape Cod, led by the Family Pantry of Cape Cod in Harwich.
“(MEFAP) really is an economic engine for our state, because what happens is we are able to keep an industry (going) and put money back into the community, but at the same time we feed people. It is a remarkable program,” said GBFB President and CEO Catherine D’Amato.
GBFB and the Family Pantry of Cape Cod are serving more and more people. The amount of food GBFB distributed doubled in 10 months and there is no sign of slowing. Christine Menard, executive director of the Family Pantry, said she has seen need increase by 40 percent two years in a row. Some days they serve a family every 53 seconds.
“It’s as busy as I have ever seen it,” said Menard.
Peake said that as she was making breakfast that morning she was not taking her security for granted; one out of every three people, 42,000 people in her district, aren’t as lucky as her. It shouldn’t feel like such a “miracle” to have a good breakfast, she said.
“You hear a lot about how it takes a village, this program takes a commonwealth,” Peake added.
The increasing need, and hopes for increased funding in the state budget, prompted the Greater Boston Food Bank to organize a road show highlighting the importance of MEFAP. The first stop was a farm in Chicopee, the second the Chatham fish pier, and the third Teddie Peanut Butter headquarters in Everett. Organizers hope the tour helps convince the state legislature to bring MEFAP funding above $40 million next year, roughly a $10 million increase.
“We need your help,” D’Amato told the group.
MDAR Commissioner Randle said Massachusetts is one of the few states that has the emergency assistance program and she often hears from jealous peers across the nation.
“I like to say it is the shining star of the department,” Randle said.
Captains Jesse Rose and Bill Amaru noted the program has been important to small fishing businesses. They said an expansion would be beneficial and the local fleet is catching other species that would make a delicious, nutritious product.
“I am very excited for the future. We have some great new fishing products,” said Rose.
“The opportunities are there,” Amaru agreed, adding there are young fishermen and women entering the business. “They need your support and your help to be able to continue to promote the less utilized species that we have. Do the best you can in the legislature to see that the funding is there. We would sure appreciate it.”
Seth Rolbein, who heads up the Small Boats, Big Taste program for the Fishermen’s Alliance, said the success of the Chatham port, and ports across the Cape, remain economically and socially essential. There are 600 harvesters working in Chatham alone, he said adding that it was the third most valuable port in the state, with $20 million in ex-vessel (direct to the boat) value based on state figures.
Menard said MEFAP funds help fishermen and 700 families a week on the Cape. People who come to the pantry do not fit some stereotype, they are grocery clerks, phlebotomists, teachers.
“Our job is to feed the families, so they stay and support the Cape and the state,” Menard said.