Farm Bill Spotlight: Fishadelphia

This innovative start-up uses Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program (FMLFPP) funding-- which is part of the Farm Bill-- to open new markets for local seafood and employ youth in Philadelphia. We sat down with Project Director Talia Young to discuss the ins and outs of starting a youth-run business and connecting urban customers to rural fisherpeople, food chain workers, and seafood seasonality.

This is the first in a series of interviews exploring how programs in the Farm Bill influence programs, people, and food systems throughout the region. Interview has been edited for length.

Tell us a little about yourself. Who are you, what do you do, and how did you end up doing it?

My name is Talia Young. I started my work with Fishadelphia, which is a community seafood program, but when I’m not doing that, I’m a post-doctoral fellow in conservation at Princeton and that’s a job that you get after you get your PhD. My PhD is in ecology and evolution and I studied fish and food webs. Through that, I ended up doing some work with fishing communities on the east coast, and through that, I ended up getting involved with some of the Community Supported Fisheries work. And that is how I ended up starting Fishadelphia.

Before I went to graduate school, I taught high school science in Philadelphia for a number of years, and I also ran an environmental education program in Philly at a high school, and all of those things have helped me do Fishadelphia.

What do you see as the central issue or issues Fishadelphia was created to address?

There are two primary goals that Fishadelphia addresses. One of them is providing quality food for people of all incomes, and the other is providing a domestic market for our harvesters, at a fair price for both sides. Also connecting these two communities- fishing communities on the [New Jersey] shore, and urban communities in the city [of Philadelphia]-- communities that, in some ways, I think face a lot of similar challenges, but are not necessarily directly connected.

Those are the primary goals, but we have other goals too. One is to give young people agency in a project that has meaning, and also to make the program and the school and the young people an asset in the neighborhood, which is changing and gentrifying. Also, to think about what it means to be American, and who holds the solution to “American problems”. Because I think that the challenges of domestic fishing communities are cast as an “American problem”, and I think the idea that people in cities, and immigrants, and people of color, and low-income folks can help be part of the solution to that particular “American problem” is not something that a lot of fishery folks think about.

What insights or reflections do you have on connecting fishing communities with an urban center like Philadelphia? How have issues of race, class, or gender showed up in trying to connect urban/rural and youth/adult communities?

It’s super interesting. We brought 50 customers out to the shore to visit the fishermen’s co-op in Point Pleasant (watch a video about the trip here), and they gave us an awesome tour and fed us an amazing lunch, and I think people were really interested and learned a lot about where their fish are coming from. We also had a cook-off in June, and this round none of the harvesters or processors came in for the cook-off, but I have hopes in the future that we might build connections between the communities such that people would be interested in coming in and seeing who is eating their fish and how they are eating it. It’s in progress.

We also took the students to visit one of the docks on the shore, and one of the things  that they were really interested in was the idea that there are cameras on a lot of the boats. They were like, “wow, the government is watching them, I had no idea,” and I was like “yeah, that’s a thing that a lot of people worry about, the government watching, and the fishermen also worry about it.” A number of them said [that] was the most interesting thing they had learned on the trip. And that was not what I expected them to find most interesting, because we also saw a bluefin tuna! They were also interested in that, but it was just interesting the things they take home. And that was one of the ideas of the project, that if we connect these people, what happens?

Race, class, and gender are present in all of the interactions. Our customers are a real mix of people, and different demographics of customers want different kinds of fish, for example. We have a big chunk of Chinese-speaking customers who feel very strongly that they want whole fish, and then we have English-speaking customers who, for the most part, prefer fillets. It was an interesting pattern that came out in our focus groups, so we designed a program to accommodate that. I’ve been talking with the shore folks about the idea that we have a market for whole fish, for eating, here. We get some of our stuff filleted, but a lot of it we don’t get filleted, and part of what I’m hoping is that we’ll create a reputation for being interested in low-cost, whole fish, if people have small quantities of it, and they’ll call us. And that’s about ethnicity and class, but it’s also about opening up markets.

And maybe that speaks to the affordability piece, of how you can make the fish affordable to lots of different people.

We get at the affordability part in differential processing but also we choose what we buy really carefully. We are trying to buy low-cost fish that, in many other cases may be being frozen, and exported. We bought porgy (or scup), which is a great fish for a great value, and we also bought squid, which mostly gets frozen and exported. So making choices about low-cost, often low trophic level species, for eating, is another way that we are trying to get at affordability.

Fishadelphia is both a youth development program and a local fish buying club. How do you support youth leadership in your work? What have you seen as the strengths and challenges with regard to your model?

I feel really strongly that the youth component of our model is a fundamental part of its success. It is not trimmings; if we didn’t have the young people, our project wouldn’t be working. Because the thing that we have done, by anchoring it in a neighborhood school, is we are reaching the communities that send their kids to the school, and they are not communities that I would ever be able to reach, or certainly any of the folks on the dock would ever be able to reach, without having access to the students, who have access to these communities. At the current school, we’ve been working with a bunch of Burmese folks, and a bunch of Chinese folks, none of whom are English speakers, and they are buying fish from us in part because we offer really fresh fish at really reasonable prices, but also because their students are in our club and vouch for us. So we have the interpersonal relationships-- they trust us because their kid is involved with us. And then they find out that our product is good. They are buying dozens and dozens of pounds of fish from us every week. And so the young people are really critical to the success of the project as it is created.

The young people do the nuts and bolts and make all the important decisions. We were going to do crabs one week, but it turned out it was just too cold so we couldn’t find any, so we had a whole conversation-- do we want to try and delay the crabs? Should we cancel this crab shipment altogether, because we are not even sure we will be able to get them in a couple weeks, and then school is going to be out? So the students made a decision about it. There are some things the adults in the program are still doing, like I’m still doing a fair amount of the negotiating with the docks, but I think that as we do this for longer, the students will be more involved.

The other thing we trying to figure out how to implement-- and this is explicitly funded by the Local Food Promotion Program-- is how to provide stipends for returning students to take more responsibility and supervise younger students, and also for graduates. We have one student graduating and she’ll be going to college in the area, and she’ll be working for us next year. And if we open another location, which we are thinking about, we will work with our older students to help start that new location. So, not only are the students intimately involved in the day-to-day nuts and bolts of decision making, but also eventually will come to be in charge of [the project] increasingly. It was inspired by this organization called Ma’o Farms in Hawaii. They have this really amazing ambitious program but it’s all working and training with young people, and the young people also get a college degree out of it, and they run an incredibly successful business. They farm on 25 acres of land that they provide organic vegetables to farmers markets, and restaurants, and grocery stores all over the Island. They are obviously much larger and much more successful than us, but seeing that program reminded me of what is possible, and it made me think, oh, maybe we should start trying to build toward that.

How has Fishadelphia interacted with Farm Bill programs and issues? What are the issues that you’re concerned about or want to see action on?

The Local Food Promotion Program (LFPP) [a program funded in the Farm Bill] is making all of this possible. We are working with harvesters, we are building capacity, and we are building new markets. LFPP has made it possible to hire another person to help co-facilitate the program, and is paying the student and intern stipends, and has paid for all of the education programming, [including] when we took the customers to the dock, and the cook-off to increase awareness about the fish.

It’s also paying for a lot of other support. For example, we are writing a curriculum based on our program so that other people can use components of the program in ways that might be useful for them. We are also doing a bunch of assessments of the program, so we are interviewing and surveying harvesters and customers and the students before and afterwards to see what kind of effect participating in this program has. The LFPP is making all of that possible. And I had no idea [this program] was Farm Bill funded. It’s been great because I’ve been following the Farm Bill much more closely as a result.

Otherwise, we have not interacted with the Farm Bill very much explicitly, although one of the things we have been struggling with is trying to figure out how we can accept SNAP to pay for our fish. Seafood is a food stamp qualified food, but we are not a food stamp qualified retailer. We and the students feel strongly that making it possible for people to pay with food stamps for their seafood would really make it possible for people to participate in our program who would not otherwise be able to. We’ve been having a lot of trouble figuring out how to do that, and navigating the bureaucracy.

How do you connect your students and customers to broader food system issues?

We provide information about what species we are providing every week and where it comes from, but also something about the ecology and life history of the species, because I’m a biology teacher at heart, like where does it live? Does it migrate? What does it eat?

People who are interested in traceable food are really interested in the harvesters-- so like ‘the farmer who grew my food’, they take pictures with the fishermen-- “I want to take a picture with the fisherman who caught my fish!” but the processing labor is underappreciated, undervalued, often invisible in the traceability of the food chain. I’m interested in rendering that more visible, in part because the people who do the processing-- it’s very high-skill, these people are very good at what they do. A lot of them are immigrants, they are often not English speaking, they are often hourly, often seasonal. Agricultural labor in this country is a really big thing, and that is also part of how the food gets to us. It’s not just somebody put the seeds in, and then miraculously it shows up our plate; somebody had to pick it, or pull it out of the water, or cut it into pieces, or take the head and the scales off, or cut it out of its shell, or whatever it is. That labor is part of our food supply chain, and I’m interested in making that part of how we talk about how food comes to us, because I think that’s also part of the larger project of who is an American, and whose work goes into making our lives what they are. So with every product, we give a handout with who caught it, who processed it, who drove it to you, and then who sold it to you. So it makes the supply chain complete.

There’s a lot of advocacy around farmworkers in this country, but it’s not all that connected to the so-called sustainable food movement, even though those are intricately linked. And I feel strongly that making it visible and making it a value as part of the traceability, and as part of sustainable and local foods, that will give us more leverage in terms of labor rights.

I also think that a lot of people have a sense that produce is seasonally available-- people are much less familiar with that in terms of fish. So people always want to know what we’re getting in two weeks, and we always say we don’t know because it hasn’t been caught yet. And that’s been very unfamiliar to people. People are down for it-- especially because it means that what we are getting for them is extra fresh-- but it’s definitely been a learning curve, for them and for us. A lot of people have been like, “Do you have salmon? Do you have shrimp?” And the line is, “well, the water is too warm here for salmon but it’s too cold for shrimp.” So working on the seasonality and the ecology and environmental components of the fish and the food that is available.

Thank you, Talia, for sharing your story!

About the Local Food Promotion program:

Each year, The Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program provides $30 million dollars of funding to projects that create markets for local food. Priority is given to projects that serve low-income communities.

The House's version of the 2018 Farm Bill would essentially eliminate the program by cutting all its mandatory funding, while the Senate version protects the program by consolidating it into the $60 million Local Agricultural Market Program (LAMP).

Help preserve this program!

Contact your legislators by calling the Capitol Switchboard at (202) 224-3121. Say, "Hello, my name is ____ and I'm a constituent and a ____ [farmer, gardener, community organizer, etc.]. I'm calling to applaud the Senate for including the new Local Agriculture Marketing Program in the Farm Bill, and to ask that that program receive $80 million/year in the final bill so that it can help local farmers feed families across the northeast and the country. [If you are calling the House, add: The House should include this Senate language in the final combined bill.] Thank you for supporting healthy farms and communities in [your state]!"