WINDSOR — Mike Flynn, the nutrition director for Sheepscot Valley Regional School Unit 12, drives down to Portland harbor once a week to pick up 70 pounds of fresh fish from Nova Seafood.

Regional School Unit 12 nutrition director Mike Flynn, right, cuts hake into portions while principal Heather Wilson dips the fish into garlic and onion flavored oil and kitchen manager Sherry Owens waits to coat the portions in breadcrumbs and parmesan cheese Tuesday at Windsor Elementary School. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

He loads the fish into his own car, and drives it back to Windsor Elementary School, where he processes and freezes the fresh hake and pollock for RSU 12 student lunches.

RSU 12 is part of a program called “Fishermen Feeding Mainers” through the Maine Coast Fishermen Association. Flynn found out about it through the Maine Department of Education, which is partnering with the program to get fresh fish into public schools.

“I’ve never seen this level of fresh ingredients,” Flynn said. “This is fantastic, what’s going on in schools.”

“Fishermen Feeding Mainers” started with a grant from an anonymous donor to help fisherman continue to make money after the coronavirus affected the supply chain from some of the restaurants that Maine Coast Fishermen Association would rely on to buy their products.

The fishermen go out once a week, weather permitting, to get the fish that is then distributed to processors to freeze and give to the participating schools.

Each trip a fisherman takes is around two to four days and they catch between 3,000 to 12,000 pounds of fish, depending on the fishing method, boat size, and duration of trip, according to Mary Hudson, project manager at the Maine Coast Fishermen Association and manager for the Maine Coast Community Groundfish Sector.

In this program, fishermen that go dragging can take home between 3,000 to 6,000 pounds on their 40- to 45-foot boats. Those that go gillnetting can bring in 10,000 to 12,000 pounds of fish.

When the fish is brought back to shore it’s sent to a processor, like Nova Seafood, where it’s filleted and frozen.

Flynn learns around 48 hours in advance when the fish will be ready to picked up. He is the only one that picks up fish that has not been frozen, because he likes to process the fish himself.

“With 70 pounds a week, I am able to feed around 280 kids,” he said. “The two organizations have made it happen for us, and it’s just, wow.”

All schools within RSU 12 are able to have the fish for lunch — Chelsea Elementary School, Windsor Elementary School, Palermo Consolidated School, Somerville Elementary School and Whitefield Elementary School.

Westbrook Public Schools, Scarborough Public Schools and Author L. Gould School also pick up fish weekly, according to Robin Kerber, the DOE’s Farm and Sea to School Coordinator, although they do not get as much as Flynn does.

Principal Heather Wilson, left, coats a 4-ounce hake in garlic and onion flavored oil and kitchen manager Sherry Owens dredges them in breadcrumbs and parmesan cheese Tuesday at Windsor Elementary School. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Kerber thinks that more schools across the state would participate if it was more of a “normal” year and if there weren’t already as many changes as there were to school structure because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s really important to expose kids to all different ingredients,” Kerber said. “The fact that we have this coast line that is a huge part of our economy and food system and to give it a place where kids are able to understand why fish and seafood are a part of our culture and diet and expose them to it, it’s more likely they will buy it themselves in the future.”

With his prior experience as a chef, Flynn is planning on creating a video to show other districts how to prepare and manage the fish.

It’s hoped that through the video, and seeing different ways that the fish can be prepared in a school setting, more districts across the state may participate.

“I’ve asked them to share recipes and photos, and I’ve heard great strides about meal counts being up when they offer tastings of the fish,” Kerber said. “The child nutrition staff appreciates working with high-quality, locally fresh products. It’s more fun; they can be creative.”

Students across the state of Maine are able to receive free breakfast and lunch, regardless of parent income, through the Free Meals Program until Dec. 31. RSU 12’s meal program has been highlighted by experts as effective in getting meals out as they have a couple that volunteers to get meals out to remote only students.

As the season for hake and pollock slows down, the Maine Costal Fishermen Association is hoping to continue the grant to ensure that schools still have the fresh quality ingredients.

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