The golden chunks of fried, frozen fish speeding off conveyor belts at Good Harbor Fillet's Gloucester plant are the company's bet on bringing seafood back to school cafeterias.
The frozen fish processor, whose business plan has included revolutionizing the fish stick, is getting a new boost from the federal government to reach a generation often suspicious of eating things that come from the ocean.
After a year of lobbying by Good Harbor, the U.S. Department of Agriculture this week announced that it will start buying frozen Alaska pollock in a commodity program that puts discounted food in school kitchens across the country.
Giant frozen blocks of pollock are Good Harbor's raw material of choice to make a range of kid-friendly fried fish foods with its fat-blocking protein coating system developed by partner Proteus Industries.
In recent years, fish consumption in public schools has been on the decline, a trend Good Harbor President Bill Stride attributes to subsidies for terrestrial proteins and the low quality of cheaper, traditional fish sticks made out of minced seafood.
"My strong sense is that seafood consumption has been dropping for years," Stride said yesterday. "Now the kids will be able to eat the best pollock at prices on par with other proteins."
If Gloucester public schools are any indication, the subsidies from the federal commodities program could result in pollock hitting cafeterias as early as next year.
Gloucester schools have used Good Harbor products in the past, as recently as last year, but this year had to cut back because of a logistical problem connected with district layoffs.
Gloucester food service director Richard Kelleher said yesterday that if the price of Good Harbor fish comes down like the price of other commodity program foods, he would love to put them back on the menu.
"The commodity foods are pennies on the dollar versus market prices, and quality has improved over the years," Kelleher said. "We are definitely interested in fish."
The frozen seafood business in Gloucester branched out from the traditional fishing industry in the latter half of the 20th century when companies such as Gorton's started bringing in fish from Canada and the Pacific instead of relying on local landings.
Good Harbor, which employs 83 people at its Blackburn Industrial Park plant, brings in fish, including salmon, cod, flounder and tilapia, from ports in Alaska, Canada and China.
Pollock, the groundfish whose Pacific population has become a ubiquitous presence in fast food and processed meals, arrives at Good Harbor's Blackburn plant in 30-pound cubes of compressed filets.
To make the products that will go toward school lunches, the frozen pollock is sliced and then stamped into shapes — nuggets, patties and sticks — before being battered, breaded and dipped into the fat-blocking NutraPure protein bath.
Then the fish is "par-fried" ¬— Good Harbor says this gives the fish its distinctive "crunch" ¬— before being frozen again.
While Good Harbor uses all-muscle pollock, instead of minced fish, its products are not the kind you would find at a fancy restaurant or at a farmers market.
In addition to the fat-reducing properties of NutraPure, Good Harbor employs other discoveries of food science that, essentially, make fish seem like it is something else.
These include the "Parmesan" coating system that, when heated, makes fish smell like pizza. Another coating evokes potatoes, and "nacho sticks" are pollock surrounded by a Mexican tortilla crust.
For Good Harbor, if mingling fish with pizza gets children to eat seafood that is healthier than hamburgers and fried chicken, these unconventional steps are worth it.
"We are trying to get kids to eat good pieces of whole-muscle fish," said Suzanne Tucci, who has been working on the school program for Good Harbor. "In the long run, the goal is to have them learn to appreciate good seafood."
All of the technology and processing that goes in to Good Harbor's fish is not cheap, which has made getting them within the budgets of cash-strapped school systems difficult. But the subsidy of the commodity program could change that.
Under the program, the federal government will buy bulk pollock and offer it to states interested in using it for their school lunch programs.
Because local school systems aren't equipped to break down frozen 30-pound blocks of raw fish, processors like Good Harbor are in a perfect position to sign deals with the states to process their pollock and deliver it in a form that can go straight to students.
Procurement for the current school year is already done, so the company has set its sight for the year beginning next September.
Tucci said she hopes Massachusetts will be the first state to sign on with the company, but Indiana has shown strong interest and might become the first.
Before pollock was added, the only seafoods in the commodity program were canned tuna and catfish.
Three Massachusetts companies are leaders in frozen pollock processing: Good Harbor, Fisheries Products International in Danvers and Viking Seafoods in Malden.
Those constituents gave Congressman John Tierney, D-Salem, reason to lobby for the pollock listing, and Tucci gave him credit for helping get the deal done.
"We have been committed to improving the national school lunch program for a decade now," Stride said. "The price of our products will now be a heck of a lot closer to chicken and beef."
Patrick Anderson can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3455, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org