School lunch seafood bill faces uphill battle

Published on
February 19, 2016

While new bills designed to get American seafood into U.S. schools were introduced last week, the legislation faces an uphill battle.

Late last week, U.S. Senators Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) introduced S. 2529, which would require that fish and fish products served through the National School Lunch program be caught in U.S. waters, or in the case of tuna, caught by a U.S.-flagged vessel.

The higher cost of seafood versus most other proteins and the minute budget for school lunches will be a challenge when it comes to buying wild-caught American seafood. However, Cantwell has confidence in the legislation and believes that U.S. seafood is healthier for students. “American-caught seafood is the healthy choice for school children around the country. Our bill will ensure fish and fish products served in our schools are American-caught, providing nutritious meals to help students grow and stay healthy,” Cantwell said.

Buying American fish will also bolster the commercial fishing industry in her home state of Washington and throughout the country, supporting thousands of jobs, according to Cantwell. Plus, the law will help protect students from “inferior” foreign product, she said. Currently, U.S. law only requires the National School Lunch Program to buy American seafood to the maximum extent practicable, resulting in seafood from Russia and China making its way into school lunches, Bryan Watt, spokesperson for Senator Cantwell, told SeafoodSource.

“Much of this product is inferior and less nutritious,” he said. “Furthermore, many of these fisheries are not managed to the scientific and sustainability standards that U.S. fisheries are held to under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.”

In addition, American seafood may not necessarily cost more than foreign seafood, according to Watt.

“There are a lot of different kinds of seafood products that represent a wide range in market value. Of course, we cannot forget the nutritional and conservation value.”

Rather than pushing for national legislation, some suppliers have opted to work directly with school districts to increase the amount of seafood served. Real Good Fish, a community-supported fishery in Moss Landing, Calif., is working directly with a few U.S. school districts to increase their use of seafood.

In late 2014, the CSF added Bay 2 Tray, in which it delivers local bycatch or underutilized seafood to the Monterey Peninsula Unified School District and the Pittsburgh Unified School District north of Oakland, Calif. The Oakland Unified School District is also testing the program.

“It’s a slow process [to add new school districts],” Alan Lovewell, CEO and founder of Real Good Fish, told SeafoodSource. “Schools aren’t prepared to handle raw seafood; they are used to putting fish sticks in the oven. A lot of them want to do it, but it requires them to have the proper handling procedures in place.”

Because of school districts’ tight budgets – typically USD 1.25 (EUR 1.12) per student, per meal – Real Good Fish can only supply schools with IQF bycatch fillets.

“We wouldn’t be able to meet their price point for wild salmon and other fish,” Lovewell said last October. “The only way we can offer the program is with species that are undervalued.”

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