AUBURN — There’s something fishy going on in Auburn schools.

Chris Piercey is the lunch program director for the Auburn School Department. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

Over the past school year, kitchen staff prepared and served locally-caught haddock, hake and pollock to students roughly half a dozen times.

Born from a partnership with the Gulf of Maine research institute, Auburn schools began sourcing fresh fish from the Portland Fish Exchange last fall. It was a “step in the right direction” for Auburn schools, which previously only offered preprepared frozen fish such as fish sticks, according to Director of Nutrition Services Chris Piercey.

Like most other school food programs, Auburn often serves classic staples such as pizza, chicken nuggets and cheese burgers for lunch. But Piercey said he likes to think kids are hungry for something more.

“We don’t want to just rinse and repeat the same things over and over again,” Piercey said. “We try and bring excitement to the program and different things outside the box. Fresh fish really kind of tied to all of that.”

The school district was one of seven in New England to be recognized with the Gulf of Maine research institute’s inaugural Local Seafood Spirit Award for serving students local fish. Others recognized include Windsor-based Sheepscot Valley Regional School Unit 12 and Portland Public Schools.


Two years ago, the institute received a Farm to School grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help New England school districts source local seafood and educate students about its benefits. Although the grant has ended, institute staff will continue to help school districts interested in adding local seafood to their meal rotations.

“We went into this expecting that we might need to do a little bit more convincing with students (and staff) … to get kids excited about seafood and get them wanting to give it a try,” said Kyle Foley, sustainable seafood senior program manager at the Gulf of Maine research institute. “Kids have just overwhelmingly, at all different age levels from K through 12, been excited about the seafood and have enjoyed it.”

This year, Auburn schools served about 600 pounds of fresh fish, Piercey shared. Two-thirds of it was served to Auburn elementary students on a special lunch day; the rest was offered as a meal option every other month at the middle and high schools.

Locally-caught haddock is served Nov. 12, 2021, to Auburn Middle School students with coleslaw, roasted potatoes and apple crisp. The district served fresh fish to middle and high school students roughly half a dozen times during the school year. Submitted photo

“The response was actually very good,” Piercey said. “I was kind of surprised and shocked by it to be honest with you.”

Auburn middle school students had the option of eating pizza or baked haddock with potatoes and apple crisp for lunch Nov. 12, 2021. More than 80% of the them and 70% of Edward Little High School students who chose the seafood option for lunch indicated they liked it, according to data provided by Foley.

Not just students, but staff also appreciated the opportunity to prepare a fresh meal, in spite of the extra labor.


“The staff, they really enjoyed putting the work into something that they offered fresh-cooked themselves,” Piercey said. “They really get behind it and helped promote it to the kids.”

The biggest challenge was finding a supplier for large quantities of local fish.

“Going through COVID and supply chain issues … getting in regular stuff was hard enough, let alone getting something different,” Piercey said.

With the help of the Gulf of Maine research institute, the school ultimately began sourcing seafood from the Fishermen Feeding Mainers program, a Brunswick-based nonprofit organization created by the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association in 2020 to support local fishermen and feed families in need.

The organization provides seafood at no cost to schools and food banks across the state.

Notes provide Auburn Middle School kitchen staff with feedback from students on breaded haddock served for lunch on Nov. 12, 2021. Submitted photo

Foley said supplying students with local seafood is a “win-win-win” for the healthy protein content, supporting the local economy and the environmental benefits of responsibly harvested seafood in the Gulf of Maine.


About 90% of all seafood eaten in the U.S. is imported, she said.

“It can be really hard, especially for certain parts of our fishing industry, to compete in that much larger global marketplace,” Foley said. “So it’s actually really important when a school makes a decision to choose to purchase local seafood, it helps create some demand for local fishing communities to keep doing what they’re doing.”

Piercy aims to add more fresh fish to school meals in the coming year, perhaps as a monthly option.

But until then, the school district’s nutrition department is focused on providing free breakfast and lunch to those 18 years old and younger at the PAL Center.

Staff won’t be serving fresh fish, rather children can expect to see classic in-school favorites paired with fruits, vegetables and a carton of milk. The federally-funded program is not limited to Auburn residents.

Breakfast is served from 10 to 11:30 a.m. and lunch from 12:30 to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday at 24 Chestnut St.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.