This year, the Family Pantry of Cape Cod expects to serve 10,000 clients and distribute 100,000 bags of groceries valued at $4.2 million.
“We call ourselves a sustaining pantry,” said Christine Menard, the director of the Harwich facility, meaning that the pantry’s clients do not fit a stereotype of people in total collapse. “They are landscapers, fishermen, nursing assistants. You’ll recognize people here from your neighborhood, your schools.” The $200 clients save in groceries every two weeks goes toward covering other bills, such as housing.
Menard was giving visitor Beau Gribbin, a lifelong fisherman from Provincetown, a brief overview of the headquarters on Queen Anne Road, which serves the entire Cape, in advance of a distribution on Thursday, April 18.
Gribbin, who had a hardscrabble upbringing in Provincetown, could relate. “I come from the corner of broke and poverty,” he said with a smile.
Menard also talked about how in recent years, the pantry’s food focus has changed. Instead of inexpensive calories, now the focus is on good produce, high-quality protein.
“It is all about nutrition,” she said.
Gribbin understood that too. Now the owner of three boats, he is pleased more people are recognizing that fish is arguably the healthiest of all protein sources.
“Unfortunately fish is priced out of the range of a lot of people. This is especially ironic on Cape Cod, with our local fishing fleet and history,” said Seth Rolbein of the Cape Cod Fishermen’s Alliance, who was visiting the pantry last week with Gribbin.
That disconnect is one reason Gribbin and Rolbein were there. The Fishermen’s Alliance, which started the Fish for Families program in 2013 to deliver locally caught fish to pantry customers, recently received another major grant from Cape Cod Healthcare to keep the program going.
The need has not diminished over the years; more than 21,000 people across the Cape are considered “food insecure,” meaning they are often uncertain about whether they or their loved ones will have regular meals.
“Cape Cod Healthcare welcomed the opportunity to support the Fish for Families Program. Providing local, nutritionally-rich seafood to elderly and economically challenged Cape Cod residents is part of our ongoing effort to promote good health in our community,” said Terri Ahern, senior vice president of strategy and government affairs at Cape Cod Healthcare. “This program is also raising awareness through nutrition education.”
“Protein is always the most expensive thing you can buy,” Menard said.
In this case the fish, which clients receive for free, is subsidized and sold to the pantry for 50 cents a pound. Processing and packaging to create individual frozen portions, done by Marder Trawling in New Bedford, runs about $1.75 per pound and the fishermen still need to be compensated for their catch. Grant support is crucial.
“We recognized years ago it was a win-win,” said Menard. “It helps keep fishermen fishing year round and you have the need in the community. That is why we are so passionate about it.”
More than 50,000 pounds of fish have been distributed since 2013, everything from hake to skate, mackerel to redfish. The fish goes not just to Harwich, but to other pantries around the Cape. On this rainy night monkfish bites and scallop pieces were on the menu.
“This is a demographic that really appreciates seafood,” said Menard. “And they know it’s locally caught. We’ve done surveys. Eighty percent of the people will take fish.”
Gribbin stood by the exit door, frozen one-pound portions of monkfish and scallops in front of him. The fish were add-ons, meaning that anyone at the pantry could take some home.
Client after client took not only the fish, but a recipe for both. As many using the pantry don’t have full kitchens and might use a hot plate for a stove, simple is better.
“I would grab those in a heartbeat,” said one woman with a broad grin as scallop parts were added to her cold bag.
Many at the pantry also knew monkfish. One man said his friends were going to be ecstatic when he made it for dinner and another politely cut off Gribbin’s explanation of the ugly, but great-tasting fish.
“I love monkfish. I actually think it tastes like lobster,” he said, explaining that he discovered it three years ago and has been raving about it since.
Gribbin agreed. He grew up in a Portuguese family so they cooked it with saffron, stewed tomatoes, olive oil and garlic, and he still eats it.
Gribbin is one of 30 fishermen who have been a part of Fish for Families and one of many who have come to the pantry to help distribute, sharing stories.
Many of those who took fish home to cook were impressed to meet a real fisherman and hear about his business.
“It’s nice of you to bring the fish down, we appreciate it,” said a woman with steel-grey hair pulled back off her face.
Gribbin smiled his thanks.
“I wish we had something like this growing up,” he said.
Doreen Leggett is the community journalist for the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance. Her work appears monthly. She can be contacted at email@example.com.