Nov 25, 2020 | Aids to Navigation

Seth Rolbein serves up chowder at the MIT campus, with safety protocols observed. Photo by Rob Vincent.

By Doreen Leggett

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Mark Hayes, Director of Campus Dining at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s campus in Cambridge, was offered the opportunity to serve students haddock chowder offered by a small, commercial fishing advocacy group on Cape Cod, the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance.

Hayes mentioned it to his colleague Heather Ryall.

“He said, ‘This just fell in my lap,’” Ryall, the associate director of dining, said. “I was like, ‘Yesssss…’”

Ryall, an energetic woman with cropped hair, was standing in the lower level of the dining hall just off Massachusetts Avenue. On either side of her were two signs: one celebrating the Fishermen Alliance’s ‘Small boats, Big taste’ chowder, the other MIT Sea Grant, which is part of a national program that provides research, education, and outreach programs related to ocean science and coastal communities.

Rob Vincent, Assistant Director for Advisory Services with Sea Grant, was the main reason why almost 900 pounds of haddock chowder, caught by local fishermen and made by family-owned businesses, was now steaming in pots at the university.

Sea Grant, along with Catch Together and local donors, provided the funding to help launch the program that has twin goals: pay fishermen a fair, reliable price for smaller haddock they had difficulty marketing, and provide food banks and pantries with delicious, nutritious meals for a growing number of clients.

The popularity of the chowder, and growing need as the economic ramifications of the pandemic increase, had supporters thinking about how to keep the program funded and self-sustaining.

“The next step in this whole process is to find the outside sustainable revenue source,” Vincent said.

Vincent, who is a chowder fan himself, thought that maybe a debut at MIT could be the way to go, perhaps with an agreement to continue offering the chowder next semester.

So MIT Sea Grant offered to pick up the cost and mention it to the dining mavens. “The Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance has done an incredible job with this program, which provides valuable support for the local seafood industry and communities during these challenging times,” Vincent added. “I am thrilled that MIT Dining Services was willing to try the product and consider it as a potential menu offering in the future. MIT has a strong commitment to community and sustainability, and I thought it would be a perfect match.”

“The idea came together in a day. It’s just fantastic,” said Seth Rolbein of the Fishermen’s Alliance, who has been steering the program.

Rolbein spooned out close to 200 cups of haddock chowder on a beautiful day earlier this month to appreciative students and staff at the MIT campus.

“I think this is terrific,” said David Mazumder, a graduate student in neuroscience.

Mazumder believes that universities are a lot more resilient than many local businesses and using their buying power to connect students with good local food is exemplary.

“MIT has a lot of leverage in the local community,” he added.

Mazumder, a self-described fish lover, is a member of the college’s sustainability committee and usually shies away from meat because of its high carbon footprint. He has no reservations with fish, particularly those caught in local waters and processed by companies that are virtually in the neighborhood.

“I think we are underutilizing the ocean,” he said.

While students walked by the pop-up chowder stand on the way up to the main dining room upstairs, Rolbein explained the program’s appeal.

“This is haddock chowder, all caught by Massachusetts fishermen, caught sustainably, all natural ingredients, no preservatives, and we are also feeding food banks and food pantries around New England,” he said. “So we are keeping our fishermen on the water while helping our communities that might need a little bit of help right now.”

Students appreciated the human interactions, albeit masked and socially distanced. At college during COVID, there was a feeling of being disconnected to the community so a presentation like this was food for the soul as well as the belly.

The news of the chowder spread fast. Chefs working at the school gave it high marks (“I loved it,” said Luiz DaCosta, Bon Appetit’s Culinary Director at MIT) and several staff members came back for seconds, “Better than Legal’s,” smiled one.

Senior Riley Terando and friends Courtney Byrne and Zion Moore didn’t stop to read the signs when they came up to the table. They had been told by a friend to be sure to get some before it disappeared.

“He recommended we come grab it,” Terando said, smiling, as they queued up.

Their friend, Jiaheng Zang, enjoying a cup outside with Rolando Rodarte, said the chowder project was a great idea.

“It helps fishermen find someplace to sell their fish, which I’m sure is very difficult sometimes,” he said.

He said regardless of COVID, giving fishermen reliable markets and donating to food banks is important. Now, with the pandemic, it’s exponentially more important.

“Plus it’s good,” Zang said with a smile.

“The chowder is amazing,” Rodarte agreed.

If you want more information about the program, or would like to donate, reach out to Rolbein at [email protected]


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