It’s become something of a mantra, and not just at the farmers’ market. From the produce aisle at the grocery store to local restaurants, the message is everywhere: locally grown and sourced food is often good for the environment, the economy and us.
And now, a Rutgers extension agent is working to get Garden Staters to apply the same ethos when shopping for seafood.
The idea started with a news story, said Gef Flimlin, a marine extension agent with Rutgers Cooperative Extension who has worked with commercial fishermen on the Jersey Shore for decades.
Flimlin said he saw a feature on a generations-old hardware store in Ohio that was struggling through the recession until a local resident decided to leverage the power of his contacts list to help out. He emailed 40 people asking them to show up at the store on the same day. Ultimately, more than 800 shoppers came in what was labeled a “cash mob.”
So, thought Flimlin, why not harness the same energy to help out local fisheries? They could use the support of the community behind them, he said, especially right now.
“It was a weird winter with strange temperatures, and we lost a fisherman,” Flimlin said. “Each year, we lose fishermen. They kind of feel alone.”
So he drafted an email and sent it to hundreds of people — professional colleagues, fisheries people, friends. Lots of people are eating fish on Fridays for Lent now, he said, and many others choose it because it’s healthy and delicious. His request was simple: When you go to the supermarket or the fish store, ask for Jersey seafood, and help some of these guys out.
He hasn’t stopped there. He’s also getting the word out to food buyers for local grocery stores, and he’s working with produce sharing cooperatives in South Jersey to help them incorporate local fish and shellfish into their lineup of fresh food.
The benefits of eating locally go beyond helping out a neighbor, said Flimlin. Commercial fishermen are primary producers, he said, meaning they’re adding new value to the economy with their product.
“The money doesn’t exist until the seafood is put over the dock,” he said. “Before that, it doesn’t exist. So it’s new money in the local, state and national economy.”
And to get the fish from dock to seafood counter requires plenty of other jobs, too. “To do this locally, you’re supporting the fisherman, the truckers who move it, the guy who brings the diesel fuel to the dock, the ice company that services the ice machines, the companies that make the boxes the fish goes into," Flimlin said.
And, he said, maybe most importantly for the consumer, there’s a delicious variety of fish and shellfish to choose from.
“Fishermen fish all year round,” Flimlin said. “They’re always getting something different.” The Jersey Shore’s famous scallops are available in abundance, as well as farmed and wild clams and oysters, fluke and more.
But Flimlin acknowledges it might not be possible for everybody to walk into their local grocery store and ask for a pound of whatever’s fresh and local. Some area supermarkets are only set up to sell cut seafood, and can’t take unprocessed fish straight from the docks. Others might not label their Jersey sourced seafood.
In , there's the very local , where fishing boats pull right into the port at the site where fishermen's catches of the day are sold in the . And there's the restaurant sitting right next to the co-op, which is open in the warmer months and serves all co-op fish.
ShopRite spokesperson Santina Stankevich said the chain’s stores have their own processing center, which means it’s easier for their seafood departments to offer local fish. That includes the Middletown location on Route 35.
"It’s seasonally driven, but we source locally whenever we can," she said. "And if customers are curious, they should ask about what’s available. I think a lot of times, people can be intimidated by seafood, but talk to someone at the fish counter, and you can get quite an education about what’s local, how to cook it and what’s in season now."
Flimlin is counting on open minds and curious appetites to help make the movement take off. Think about the sorts of fish you don’t normally buy, he said — croakers, porgies, mackerel — and give them a try. Check out the state Department of Agriculture's species availability page to get a sense of what you can expect and when.
And just remember to ask for local, he said.
“It’s very simple,” he said. “Just say ‘What do you have that’s from New Jersey today?’ That’s all you have to do.”
And if there’s nothing available, said Flimlin, “the next question is ‘Why not?’”
Do you support your local grocers and fishermen? Where do you get your seafood?