STONINGTON — When the coronavirus closed Maine schools, thousands of students who already qualified for free and reduced cost in-school meals faced the risk of hunger. With many parents suddenly out of work, many more students faced serious food insecurity.
At the same time, most Maine lobstermen found that there was no market for their catch. At one point, late in March and early in April, dealers were telling the lobstermen not to fish. In some places, the boat price for lobsters dropped as low as $1 per pound and many lobstermen began peddling their landings from the back of pickup trucks parked along the side of the road or in empty parking lots.
On Deer Isle, those unhappy circumstances sparked a move to turn lemons into lemonade or, more exactly, to turn unsaleable lobsters into lobster rolls for distribution to students from School Union 76, which includes Deer Isle/Stonington, Brooklin and Sedgwick.
According to Carla Guenther, senior scientist at the Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries, the idea originated with Deer Isle lobsterman Brent Oliver and his wife, Sue, while they, Guenther and her husband, lobsterman Dominic Zanke, were off island for a vacation at the beginning of March.
“We were getting all these reports,” she said. “There was no market for lobsters. The (Stonington) co-op had stopped buying lobsters except from guys bringing in their gear.” DMR was also urging lobstermen to work with dealers to reduce market stresses by, possibly, reducing lobster landings.
Once back home, Guenther got her fisheries organization involved in the project and several staff members approached schools where their children were enrolled—including Brooklin, Surry and George Stevens Academy to see if they would be interested in receiving free lobsters for their lunch programs.
Last week, early Tuesday morning, Oliver and Tom Duym, Pat Shepard and Mike Thalhouser — all from the Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries — delivered three and a half crates of live lobsters, about 315 pounds, donated by lobsterman Dominic Zanke of Stonington, from the wharf at Little Bay Lobsters in Stonington to Loren Kydd’s Edgewood Farm in Sunset. Kydd and the crew cooked the lobsters, then delivered them to seven volunteers waiting in the kitchen of the Deer Isle/Stonington Elementary School.
Under the supervision of Food Service Director Sheila Nevells, the masked and gloved kitchen workers picked three and a half crates of cooked lobsters — one crate was delivered to George Stevens Academy — chopped the meat and stored it in coolers, but the best was yet to come.
“The lobster went out as 350 lobster rolls on Friday,” said School Union 76 Superintendent Christian Elkington.
Last week’s lobster luncheon wasn’t the first for students in the Union 76 meal program. Last month, Oliver donated about 225 pounds of lobster that went to schools in Brooklin and Sedgwick, Elkington said.
Union 76 has a school population of just under 700 students, Elkington said. Right now, it is distributing about 600 breakfasts and lunches daily through its state and U.S. Department of Agriculture-approved reduced meals program.
“We’re feeding more kids than we do regularly when the kids come to school,” Elkington said last week.
The USDA program allows schools to distribute meals to students 18 and under while school is in session. With the onset of the pandemic, USDA allowed districts to feed students eligible for free or reduced cost lunches under a special summer program even though the schools were closed, initially for the April vacation period. A few weeks later, Elkington said, the rules changed to give the schools wider latitude in distributing meals.
Currently, Union 76 is distributing 12 meals per week — five lunches and seven breakfasts. The meals go out on school buses following their regular routes and are dropped off three times weekly, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, when the drivers deliver two extra breakfasts for the weekend.
“The parents and kids know when we’re coming,” Elkington said. “As soon as they (the meals) are dropped off the kids and families come out to receive them.”
Elkington described the moveable lunch program as a “team effort” involving not just the bus drivers and the kitchen staffs in the four Brooklin, Sedgwick and Deer Isle schools but also the secretaries at each of the schools who, he said, are “vital in this process.”
Stonington isn’t the only port where lobstermen have been pitching in to help ease food insecurity.
Late last month, Blue Hill lobstermen Sean Emerton, Harold Joyce and Jay Marsh set up shop and gave away some 1,500 pounds of crabs for which there was no market. The fishermen put out word of their plans on Facebook and about 75 people came to the South Blue Hill wharf with buckets to collect the bounty. Marsh said the trio plans to repeat the crab giveaway at the wharf this Saturday, May 9, between noon and 2 p.m.