For about an hour on a recent Thursday, three volunteers were busy packing meals in the Fleet Reserve back room. The individual meals consisted of fish, and sides of salad and pasta placed in plastic containers to be distributed to the needy. This relatively new program, called Fish for Families, is made possible through a collaborative of non-profit organizations which include Imperial Beach’s very own I Love to Glean. (I Love to Glean has volunteers who pick unwanted or excess produce from gardens as well from supermarkets and distributes it to the needy.)
Fish for Families addresses food insecurity thanks to the work of organizations and volunteers from San Diego Commercial Fishermen’s Working Group, Craft Meals SD, NOAA, Sea Grant -California and UCSD. The goal is not only to provide nutritious meals to the needy but also help the fishing industry which has suffered because of the pandemic, explained volunteer and former chef Cynthia Quinonez.
Fish for Families started on July 23 as a six-week pilot program thanks to funding by the San Diego Foundation, but has been extended for 22 additional weeks because more funding has become available via an organization called Catch Together.
Volunteers with I Love to Glean like Quinonez cover the last mile, she explained. The meals are prepared at Craft Meals San Diego’s commercial kitchen. “They take in giant tuna, whole Mahi Mahi… Opa, they take the whole fish, they processes and portion it,” she said. I Love to Glean provides the vegetables from rescued products and the chefs utilize them to complete the meal, she explained.
Each Tuesday and Thursday, Quinonez and the other volunteers pick up the food from the commercial kitchen placed in metal containers and drive them to the Fleet Reserve. Once there, they are provided with tables to assemble and pack the meals. Once the meals are packed and placed in cardboard boxes they are ready to go to the organizations where they are distributed.
“We have distribution organizations that have relationships with families with food insecurity, seniors and homeless,” Quinonez said.
I Love to Glean ensures transportation to the distributing agencies. On this particular Thursday, Good Neighbor Project, Our Savior in North Park and Olivewood Gardens in National City were receiving the 300 meals packed by the volunteers. The Fleet Reserve has contributed its space for the past few weeks and Karen Clay, founder of I Love to Glean is grateful for that opportunity. Before finding the Fleet Reserve as a place to pack the meals, the volunteers used the commercial kitchen at Third Avenue Charitable Organization (TACO). When the collaborative couldn’t use the TACO site any longer, Clay looked around in her neighborhood for a place with a commercial kitchen wiling to let the volunteers come in and assemble the meals.
Quinonez, who was a healthcare chef at Scripps Mercy in Hillcrest, has been a volunteer since 2013. “I knew about dietary issues faced by the disadvantaged population, the amount of diabetes and other issues,” she said. “Eating local protein is just as important as local produce. Fishermen have been suffering from the effects of the pandemic on the economy so I helped make the connection between the fishermen and some of the organization. When COVID-19 hit, the silver lining is that it accelerated the need for fish and food for the insecure families, and the fishermen lost their market, restaurants closed,” she said. “It’s been the most amazing collaborative I ever been in my life. It thrills me to death.”
Marguerite Grifka, also a chef, who volunteers with I Love to Glean, was plating the fish in each container. She heard about the program through Quinonez and immediately wanted to be part of it. The three volunteers worked in unison like a well oiled machine and Shirley Soth was placing salad in the containers before handing them to Grifka. Soth is part of the SunCoast Market Co-Op and heard about the program through Clay.
Quinonez is a big fan of helping others with their food needs. “Years ago when I was in cooking school I was a kitchen supervisor for the San Diego Rescue Mission,” she said.
“We are hoping to continue to raise money. A big part of this [program,] is to be self sustaining,” said Quinonez.
She explained that the collaborative hopes in the future to be able to use the entire fish and make money to continue the program. The bones and scrap from the fish can be used to make fish broth for Pho, Ramen and other Asian dishes. The broth could be marketed to Asian restaurants. “There is added nutrition worked into people’s meals,” said Quinonez of the broth.
She said fish scraps can also be transformed into fish chowder and fish cakes and bones can be ground up and used in community gardens. “We hope to generate revenue for this program…with zero waste. It can be as self-sustaining opportunity and money can come back to us. Not to entirely reduce the need for grants but somewhat reduce it,” said Quinonez.
In addition, she said, making the fish broth can be an opportunity to do job training for the homeless.
Quinonez believes there is an educational opportunity through this program as well. While some families are getting free fish meals right now, when jobs will be available, those families will be able to buy local seafood and support the local fishermen who have also suffered economically during the pandemic.
“It’s good for the heart, it’s good for the community,” said Quinonez.
I Love to Glean is always looking for donations and volunteers to glean, sort, organize and transport food. For more information log on www.ilovetoglean.org