“We need to teach Americans how to eat other kinds of fish,” says Talia Young, echoing a sentiment she heard from a guest at a local seafood conference. Young, a visiting professor at Haverford College and former Philadelphia public high school teacher, realized in 2018 that she might be able to connect her passion for both people and fish.
“I thought…what if we created a program that connected local harvesters to culturally diverse seafood eaters,” she says.
So Fishadelphia was born. It’s a community-based seafood program in Philadelphia, run by high-school students from Mastery Charter Thomas Campus in South Philadelphia and Simon Gratz Mastery Charter in North Philadelphia, after school. They offer locally harvested, affordable seafood to a diverse customer base through various “clubs,” that function similarly to community supported agriculture (CSA) programs — making the program Philly’s first “CSF,” or community supported fishery. The program is focused on accessibility — so customers who have kids who are students at Mastery Thomas or Simon Gratz, are eligible for food stamps or Medicaid, or are referred by another customer, can subscribe to the CSF at a discounted “community rate.”
90 percent of U.S. seafood is imported, according to the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, making the U.S. the biggest importer of seafood in the world. Simultaneously, the U.S. is the biggest producer of seafood among developed countries, and the fourth largest exporter. A lot of seafood is going back and forth, and very little stays local.
To change that, Young created Fishadelphia.
“The premise,” says Young, “was to work with communities that have broad historical relationships to seafood, particularly Asian Americans.”
Some seafood is expensive, but much of it is not. Shellfish and fish like porgy, flounder and squid, for example, are very affordable, says Young.
“For us the major cost is the distribution, delivery and operation,” she says.
The amounts and types of seafood offered in Fishadelphia shares vary greatly. A share might have oysters and clams, monkfish or eels, all from 7 local fisheries or shellfish farms in Cape May, Barnegat Light and Galloway, New Jersey. Fishadelphia has purchased 5,000 pounds of fish and 25,000 of shellfish to date.
“I think we offer a lot of value-add in addition to our purchasing,” says Young. “Certainly, we pay whatever they ask. But also, we tell our customers who caught the fish, who filleted the fish, and who drove it.”
They also connect the community directly to the businesses, through trips to the docks and bringing suppliers into the city to meet and speak with customers about the fish.
From week to week, Young calls the local harvesters. If they have a unique catch or an excess, Fishadelphia will buy it.
“I know we can move it,” says Young. “We like to have variety, we have the customer base for it.”
A Fishadelphia student fishmonger holding a black sea bass (Photo courtesy Fishadelphia)
It wasn’t hard to get the kids involved, says Young. Some students were truly interested in seafood, others were interested in learning how to run a business.
Since the pandemic began, the young fishmongers meet virtually with team leaders biweekly to discuss preparation for pickup, finances, social media, customer service, and the week’s fish ordering and shares. All the students play a different role.
“I’m like the jukebox,” says Raymond, a senior at Gratz and huge fan of mussels. Along with handling receipts at pickups, he enjoys providing playlists for the team.
Currently, Yafang, an eighth grader at Mastery Charter, is working on a hand-drawn oyster shucking diagram. Corinthia, a junior at Gratz, is working on the webpage and creating a recipe page for the different catches.
There are between 12 and 20 students working at the program at any given time, says Young. The students volunteer for one semester and then they’re eligible to get paid hourly for their time.
When the program started out two years ago, customers would travel to the schools to pick up their seafood shares. From there, they began having some offshoot pickup locations in areas with lots of customers such as West and South Philly. Then, they implemented a porch cooler system, wherein the students staff 15 or so coolers around the city from customer’s porches. When the pandemic hit, everything went to coolers.
However the program recently expanded to running a stand at the Mifflin Square Park Farmers Market in South Philadelphia.
As part of a COVID-19 relief initiative, the program started a Land to Sea Mutual Aid fund to help harvesters and student families. The donations, which have exceeded $3,000 and continue to trickle in, have come mostly from customers, and gone to support students’ families. Young hopes to have enough funds to be able to support the harvesters and their families, further connecting the city and shore.
EDITOR’S NOTE: We’ve corrected Talia Young’s current credentials
Claire Marie Porter is Next City’s INN/Columbia Journalism School intern for Fall 2020. She is a Pennsylvania-based journalist who writes about health, science, and environmental justice, and her work can be found in The Washington Post, Grid Magazine, WIRED and other publications.