A program using grant money to purchase large oysters from local oyster farmers and pay to have the oysters shucked, packaged and frozen and donated to food pantries is helping everyone along the line – from the farmers to food-insecure people.
“This program not only provides much-needed relief to our local oyster farming industry, it also provides seafood protein to our clients,” says Gennie Moran, chief operating officer of Lower Cape Outreach Council in Orleans. “It’s a win-win for all.”
The ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have thrown the state’s $30 million oyster farming industry into chaos with sales down an estimated 70 percent in 2020.
“Our industry is very heavily tied to the restaurant industry,” says Stephen Wright, a trustee of the Massachusetts Aquaculture Association (MAA), a trade association for businesses associated with Massachusetts aquaculture. Wright is an oyster farmer in Chatham, partnering with John Richards, who has had a grant on the Oyster River since 1976. Because nearly 90 percent of oysters are sold to restaurants, when restaurants closed or were allowed to operate at only 25 percent of their capacity due to the pandemic, “that left everyone without a market.”
Oysters that would normally have been harvested became overgrown during the summer. By now the “2018-year class” of oysters — those that were planted in 2018 — are almost three years old, whereas the smaller, more attractive oysters are harvested at about two years. They “got bigger and gnarly,” Wright says. “They don’t look like they belong on a half-shell plate.” So even if there were a restaurant market right now, those oysters could not be sold to be served on the half shell. However, they are “very fat and full of protein” — perfect for people who enjoy them in a stew or fried. He and his partner sold 2,500 overgrown oysters to the program.
“We’re really happy that the family pantries can use the oysters,” he says.
The Lower Cape Outreach Council’s pantry managers distribute the oysters to the clients in the eight towns it serves. Included with the oysters are six nutritional recipes that use nine (or fewer) easily-sourced ingredients, Moran says.
The Lower Cape Outreach Council received its first delivery of oysters on Feb. 9 while the Family Pantry of Cape Cod in Harwich received its second delivery of 71 pint containers on Feb. 6. Hands of Hope in Harwich also received oysters.
At the Family Pantry, clients are given a shopping list to choose what they would like to eat. Right now, clients have four fish choices including the oysters, which go quickly. Menard says the oysters are a “dense protein” and therefore very healthy. In addition, “we love supporting the fishermen.”
Funding for the program is coming from Catch Together, a philanthropic project of Multiplier.org, which has supplied $108,000 for the purchase of oysters, says Scott Soares, the MAA’s consulting coordinator. The Farm Credit East Ag Enhancement Grant program is giving an additional $3,000. The $111,000 funds up to 150,000 oysters from the growers, the cost of the wholesale dealer, and the processors who shuck, package and freeze the oysters. The retail cost of the oysters going to the food banks is over $100,000.
One of the program’s goals is to distribute the oysters as locally as possible. Oysters distributed in our area are harvested from growers on the Outer and Mid Cape. (Growers on the Upper Cape send their oysters to the South Shore and Boston.) The shellfish are processed in Chatham at Shellfish Broker, which opened last March just as the pandemic closed down restaurants and other businesses.
“This program is a true example of neighbors helping neighbors,” says Jamie Bassett, co-owner with Matt Belson of Shellfish Broker.
While the oyster farmers are selling their oysters at a discount — at 40-cents an oyster as opposed to 80 cents each — due to the lack of demand and the oversupply, selling the oysters is a boon for the farmers because they need to have space to plant their new crop of oysters between May and June.
The program is “very exciting and logical and it’s a good thing,” says Seth Garfield, MAA president and owner, with his wife Dorothy, of Cuttyhunk Shellfish Farms. Over 30 different oyster farmers are taking part in the program, and “for smaller growers, it’s incredibly helpful.”
“I’m moving oysters and keeping the bank off my back,” he says. He points out that when the pandemic ends, it is predicted that an estimated 10 to 15 percent of restaurants will not reopen. That recovery is a year or more away, he expects. And there may be a smaller market for oysters, which can sell for up to $27 a dozen shucked and served on the half-shell in the restaurant.
So one of the wins of this new program lies in the possibility of opening new markets for the “big ugly” oysters, Soares says.
Dan Howes, a shellfish grower in Orleans who is taking part in the program, agrees. “From my perspective, this may turn into a way to move some of the larger oysters down the road,” he says.
The oyster program is scheduled to continue through the first week in March. Additional grant funding is being sought.
For more information on oysters and where you can find them locally, visit maaquaculture.org.