What's for lunch in California's school cafeterias? You'll find the usual suspects—chicken nuggets, fruit—but these days, you'll also find a new addition: rattail fish.
No, "rattail fish" is not the name of some Japanese experimental crust punk band. It's what's being served for lunch to students in Oakland, Monterey, and other Northern California school districts. A new seafood program created by seafood purveyors Real Good Fish is now connecting schools to local fishermen through a service called Bay2Tray.
The program entails providing public schools with lesser-known, but still tasty, species of fish that used to be considered bycatch when fishing for other more prized fish species. One example: the above mentioned rattail fish, a.k.a. Pacific grenadier, is common bycatch when fishing for black cod. This ugly fish, once deboned and filleted, is going for $5 a pound.
But as innovative as this program sounds (where were our fresh fish tacos when we were in middle school?), it's actually an unsurprising fit for school districts that have also implemented California Thursdays, a farm-to-school initiative—started by the Center for Ecoliteracy in Berkeley—committed to serve only food grown or raised in California on alternating Thursdays.
Before this program, up to 240 tons of grenadier would be accidentally caught by black-cod-seeking fisherman and then thrown back into the ocean dead, according to a report on Bay2Tray in the San Francisco Chronicle. There simply wasn't a consumer market for the less-than-handsome fish—until now. Because the fish is actually quite mild-tasting, flaky, and not particularly oily (i.e., stinky), students are apparently eating it up and enjoying it, so much so that an estimated 2,500 pounds of Bay2Tray-sourced grenadier fillets are expected to be eaten this year in school cafeteria dishes, such as rice bowls with chipotle-baked grenadier and cilantro lime rice.
However, as inspiring as the program may seem, there are potential drawbacks, too: grenadier fish only get a yellow, or "good alternative," rating from the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch. Because these fish can live up to 75 years, they can easily fall into the endangered category if overfished. Still, why not make use of a whole lot of good fish that used to be thrown away? And in the best possible way, too: by feeding and educating younger palates.
And we bet that those rice bowls are a hell of a lot better than fish sticks.