UMass Dining nominated for Seafood Champion Award

By Anthony Rentsch

(Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian)
(Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian)

The University of Massachusetts Dining Services is up for another award – and this may be its biggest yet.

Last fall, UMass Dining Services was nominated for the Seaweb Seafood Champion Award in the Innovation category. According to the Seaweb website, UMass has identified itself as one of the top four institutions or individuals worldwide that “applies creative new solutions to address: ecological challenges, existing market needs and barriers to sustainability.” The other three nominees are Project: Inshore from the United Kingdo., Dave Kellian, a pelagic fisher from New Zealand and Anova Food’s Fishing and Living of the United States.

The winner will be announced on Feb. 9 at the SeaWeb Seafood Summit in New Orleans. And while Ken Toong, executive director of Auxiliary Enterprises, admitted he was humbled by the nomination, he was excited UMass Dining Services was being recognized for their work.

“We always take a leadership role,” Toong said of UMass’ involvement in the food services industry. “Sustainability and providing healthy and delicious food – those are our core values.”

They are values that have been present in UMass’ recent commitment to incorporating seafood into its dining halls. One of the strategies that Toong said highlights the importance placed on sustainability is the use of local, underutilized fish.

According to Toong, most of the seafood we eat – particularly salmon and cod – comes from Alaska. Within the last eight years, Toong said UMass has made a concerted effort to serve fish caught in New England, purchasing over $1 million of sustainable seafood every year.

“It is important for us to strike a balance,” he added. “We want fish to be available tomorrow, too.”

In the past, some varieties of local fish were too flaky and too difficult to prepare, according to Toong. With improved culinary training and innovative ideas like the seafood taco, Toong said seafood is on the menu almost every day.

Not only is UMass Dining Services doing its part to support sustainable seafood, it is also working with students to refine their menus. Toong said student input has led to a gradual reduction in the appearance of beef on the menu and a heavier focus on white meat and fish. And the numbers do not lie – UMass students eat an average of 21 pounds of seafood per person per year as compared to the national average of 14 pounds, according to a press release.

As a leader in the field, UMass Dining Services has also assumed a role as an educator. According to Seafood Champion Awards website, UMass, in the long run, is working toward creating an environment where other institutions can easily and affordably utilize local seafood, thus “(reducing) their environmental impact, (saving) endangered fish populations and (increasing) the resiliency of the New England fishing industry.”

This all makes for a pretty compelling resume in the judges’ eyes. Although Toong has his fingers crossed that UMass will win, he has his eyes on the future, looking for ways to continue providing sustainable and healthy food at the dining halls.

“If you do the right thing you will be rewarded,” he said. “It tells us, in many ways, that we are on the right course.”

Anthony Rentsch can be reached at [email protected]