Corine Blackmore had a problem. A big one. The operations manager for Solutions Farm had 1000 fish that needed to be harvested or they would go to waste.


The fish, tilapia, are normally harvested from the aquaponics farm every six weeks, but because of the coronavirus pandemic, they had gone unharvested for months. Then in November, the fish tanks required biannual systems maintenance. All the fish needed to be processed or they would wind up in a landfill. 


“Due to Covid, the companies we have sold to in the past are either closed or doing minimal business and none were able to handle the load,” says Blackmore. “I conferred with my leadership team as to how to move forward on the situation.”


That’s when Solutions Farm contacted Karen Clay.


Where others see waste, Karen Clay sees food. Where others see a crisis, she sees an opportunity. Early in 2010, Clay founded I Love to Glean, which recovers food that would otherwise be wasted and distributes this food to agencies and organizations that get the food to people in need.


“Wahoo! Anytime something like this happens, it’s a blessing,” says Clay. The fish are usually harvested at around two pounds, but over the months some of them had grown much larger. “Some of the fish are up to eight pounds. We’ve got some honking big fish!”


Laid off from Hewlett Packard in 2013, Clay had more time to volunteer. “I’ve always volunteered. I volunteered for Harvest Crop, picking fruit in back yards,” she says. “I met their CEO and helped them form it into a nonprofit.” The next year Clay started working with San Diego Food Systems Alliance, the local organization that advocates for sustainable, equitable, and nutritious food for San Diegans, and has been with the organization ever since. She has also volunteered with Senior Gleaners, which works with folks 55 and over to pick fruit from backyards and collect otherwise wasted foods from markets.


To process the fish, the former systems analyst contacted a fish moving business that usually works with sports fishermen. She also coordinated with a fish processor and people who could move the processed fish. “We’ve never really done fish recovery before,” she says. “Our main challenge, which happens frequently, is being able to get the limited refrigeration transportation and freezer capacity scheduled.”


With the help of local businesses like Seafood City Supermarket in Chula Vista who pitched in with refrigeration space, the fish were processed and distributed to hunger-relief organizations, with most of the harvested fish making its way to Father Joe’s Villages. Rocio Hammershaimb, the division director of operations for Father Joe’s was overwhelmed, describing the donation as, “Incredible! It’s not often that we get 150 pounds of any protein. And it’s important that it’s fish. That makes sure that we get people protein other than chicken or beef.”


The large donation comes at a time of increased urgency for feeding those in need. Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, Hammershaimb has seen a 100% increase every month in the use of Father Joe’s emergency food pantry that distributes food with a drive-up, pick-up system.


Traditionally, Father Joe’s provided lunch to individuals who are living on the street, but since the onset of the pandemic, the organization is providing breakfast, lunch, and dinner, three daily meals to Father Joe’s Villages residents, plus distributing frozen meals to persons living in support housing. “We provide over a million meals each year,” Hammershaimb says. 


Father Joe’s will waste none of the fish. Even the fish bones will be cooked up to make soup bases.


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