Wednesday, August 17, 2011

SeaShare -- Leveraging the Generosity of the Seafood Industry

In our visits to food banks and food pantries, we’ve noticed that the supply of food available for distribution to hungry Americans is often not what you’d call a balanced diet.  There is typically enough shelf-stable, processed food such as cereal and pasta, canned fruits and vegetables, and dried beans.  But often sorely lacking are fresh produce and high-quality, nutritious meat and fish.  These foods are difficult for the supplementary food system to provide because they tend to be expensive, to require special storage and timely distribution, and to be available only in seasonal cycles. 

We’ve reported earlier on numerous efforts to bring more fresh produce into the emergency food supply, but what about fish?
Jim Harmon and Mary Harmon

To find out, we traveled to Seattle, WA, the major commercial processing location for salmon, pollock, and halibut caught in the seas off the coast of Alaska.  From Seattle, we boarded a ferry for the short ride to Bainbridge Island and climbed the hill to the small offices of SeaShare, where we had a lively conversation with Jim Harmon, Executive Director, and Mary Harmon, Business Manager.
SeaShare is the only non-profit organization dedicated to getting seafood into the emergency food network.  It began in 1993 with a successful effort to amend the fishing rules so that fish inadvertently caught along with the target species could be distributed through hunger-relief agencies rather than being tossed back into the ocean.  [This Federal Register page includes details of the Prohibited Species Donation Program.]

SeaShare has grown far beyond salvaging inadvertently caught fish. Today they facilitate large donations of seafood from commercial fisheries and arrange for appropriate processing, packaging, shipping, storage, and distribution to food banks through the Feeding America network.

Here’s one example, quoted from their website:
“… in our canned salmon program, SeaShare received donations of salmon from several salmon fishermen and seafood processors. These processors donated the salmon processing and canning at a reduced rate to SeaShare, the cans were supplied by a can company, freight companies shipped the canned salmon to the lower 48, label suppliers provided special SeaShare labels, labeling and inspection companies checked the cans and labeled them, and local warehouses stored them until they could be distributed. Our financial support helped to pay for those services that we could not obtain for free, which were donated at a substantially discounted rate.”

Other donations may require a different set of steps.  For example, manufacturing fish patties from blocks of pollock requires breading and frozen distribution.

What makes SeaShare’s approach so impressive to us is the coalitions they put together to leverage the generosity of over 130 companies in the seafood industry.   SeaShare captures the donation as close to the fish nets as possible, stringing together donations and reduced costs at every step of the processing necessary to provide Feeding America with appropriately packaged, healthy seafood.  This approach means that SeaShare can produce a final donation that no single company could do on its own – high-quality seafood for an average of just 30 cents a pound.  They’re on target to supply 1.5 million pounds of seafood this year alone.

But it's not easy.  Jim and Mary described some of the challenges SeaShare faces: 
  • Many people are not used to eating fish.  They may eat canned tuna, but they are less familiar with salmon and other types of highly nutritious U.S. seafood.  It’s very difficult to change people’s eating habits.  To help, SeaShare prints recipes on their cans of salmon, distributes a fabulous salmon cookbook, and conducts fish preparation seminars and demos with celebrity chefs. 
  • Funding is an on-going concern.  We find it amazing that just 2 people (one of whom, Mary, works half-time) and an energetic board of directors can engage the seafood industry to make such generous donations each year.  But that still means they have to raise the 30 cents a pound to cover their costs.  While most non-profits receive much of their funding from individuals and foundations, SeaShare has limited public face and has typically relied mostly on monetary donations from within the same seafood companies that support them with donations of fish and processing.  Broadening their financial base is an upcoming priority for SeaShare.
  • Finally, SeaShare finds that donations of seafood may not be appropriately valued by food banks.  We agree.  Food banks typically measure their success in pounds of food distributed per person in poverty.  Their inventory tracking systems are not yet sophisticated enough to measure nutritional adequacy of the food they distribute.   That means that at some level, a pound of salmon and a pound of potatoes have equal value.   And it also means that supplemental food providers may not be doing as much as they could to help improve the health and nutrition status of hungry Americans. 
As Jim says, “There are lots of societal problems that you can’t solve until people have the right food to think clearly, to work well, and to make better choices.” 

We think SeaShare is a great example of a small organization leveraging a whole industry to improve the nutrition of hungry Americans.

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