By Doreen Leggett
Carlos Barbosa, a leading figure in the Brazilian community, is frustrated some students are so hungry they check the high school dumpster for food that has been thrown away.
Michael Mecenas, founder of Health Ministry USA in Hyannis, says he knows people who fished in their homeland of Brazil but now that they are on the Cape, they aren’t seeing similar opportunities.
Both men are part of an effort led by Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance and South Shore Community Action Council to build a stronger local food network and create job opportunities in the Cape’s historic industry.
“We can help,” said Seth Rolbein, who is heading up the program for the Fishermen’s Alliance.
The two-pronged effort is building on the “Small Boats, Big Taste” program the Fishermen’s Alliance started during COVID, along with its Fishermen Training program. Nikki Galibois, Director of Planning and Development at the South Shore CAC, explains it has “two tracks”:
“One, address food needs of the children and families involved with our early education centers across the Cape with nutrient-dense Haddock Chowder and Provencal Fish Stew produced by Fishermen’s Alliance and, in so doing, create a springboard that encourages more fish in the diet and lowers some of the barriers to fish consumption.
“The other is to gauge interest and create a workforce pipeline to connect low-income workers and others who might be interested with well-paying job opportunities in commercial fishing. The long-term goal is to build a very robust food security model that strengthens households financially and also benefits the larger community.”
“Cape Cod struggles with areas of double-digit poverty,” Rolbein added, “while at the same time more than 70 percent of the peninsula’s commercially caught fish is shipped overseas at low prices that hurt our historic, family-run fishing fleet.”
A planning grant from the United States Department of Agriculture has put the project in motion. A diverse group of non-profits, including Cape Cod Children’s Place and Community Action Committee of Cape Cod and the Islands, has been meeting at the Health Ministry.
The South Shore Community Action Council serves an average of 175 children and their families per day through early education centers in Dennis Port, West Yarmouth and Hyannis. Close to 40 percent of recipients are at or below federal poverty level, 36 percent are Hispanic or Latinx.
“Fish provides key nutrients that support a child’s brain development as well as help prevent obesity. However, studies show that children get close to 90 percent of their protein from sources other than fish,” said Rolbein. “Adults eat less than half of the 26 pounds per year experts recommend. That is important context, particularly for a community with a long history of vital, community-based fisheries.”
The first step in the planning work is to create two surveys – one focused on fish consumption and the other to gauge interest in job opportunities in commercial fishing.
The first survey will ask questions that range from whether people eat fish to whether it matters if it’s locally sourced. The survey will also try to find out why some people don’t have fish in their diets and if children eat fish outside of the home.
One of the goals of the food survey, Galibois said, is to learn more about the food preferences of parents and ways that parents’ preferences impact children’s eating habits. Children might like fish and eat it at school but not at home if parents do not.
The type of fish enjoyed can depend on the community. Rolbein, who has two Haitian-born daughters, says that Caribbean communities would incline to the tomato-based stew rather than a milk-based chowder.
The job opportunity survey asks questions such as, “Would you like to learn more about working in the commercial fishing industry? What would impact your ability to be involved?”
Both surveys will be translated by the Health Ministry into Portuguese, Spanish and Haitian-Creole. They will be distributed at various programs and classes the partners run, as well as online and through social media.
Once information is collected, focus groups will be held. Cindy Horgan, executive director of Cape Cod Children’s Place, sees the opportunity for those who come to an initial meeting to reach out to a friend or two who may have interest, building outreach.
As the work progresses, brainstorming sessions will create innovative marketing activities that benefit commercial fishermen and low-income consumers. Meet and greets with fishermen will also take place, introducing a younger generation to the Cape’s fishing fleet, which is predominately older.
“I love everything I hear,” said Josie Santos of Mass Development, a state-run employment and community development program. “Education is the key to changing economics. We have the perfect players here. If a father goes fishing and brings in the catch, kids will be proud and more seafood will be eaten. It’s important to have that connection.”