Prize Project Update Part 1: Supporting New England Kelp Farming

In their New England Food Vision Prize-winning project, lead school Massachusetts Maritime Academy and partner schools University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, Northeastern University, and Eastern Connecticut State University are on a mission to not only purchase local kelp for use in their dining halls but to also involve the greater campus community. Kelp is an abundant, underutilized resource, and MA Maritime is hoping by increasing its use on college campuses there will be a reduction of the reliance on ingredients that may be less locally plentiful.

Jim Wirzburger, Head Chef at MA Maritime expressed that the prize has given the chefs involved an opportunity to explore a new ingredient that they had never considered before. “Learning about kelp is something we’ve never done before so everything’s new,” explained Wirzburger. A large amount of the research that Wirzburger did was online, and a big takeaway from the research was kelp’s nutrient value. “Something new, it’s fun,” added Wirzburger. “Chefs can get into a rut but this project has given us the opportunity to explore.”

And explore they have. So far MA Maritime has incorporated kelp into purees for smoothies, swapped kelp in stock instead of bay leaf, and have even used their pasta machine to make a kelp fettucine, which they topped with an Alfredo sauce. Next semester there are plans to have kelp seasoning salt near the salad bar and Wirzburger is even planning to use fresh kelp sheets in teaching demonstrations with students to show the cadets how easy it is to incorporate kelp into your diet. Although there were some reservations about the new ingredient among the cadets, Wirzburger thinks that his open personality with the students has helped make the campus community more open to adding kelp to their diets: “We’re just educating them that they can’t be afraid.”

The collaborative aspect of the prize has been beneficial for the schools involved as well. Wirzburger admitted that though he’s been a chef at MA Maritime for fourteen years it was only through this project that he was able to meet and talk with the other chefs at the participating schools. When the chefs first met for an ideation session before submitting applications, they were able to brainstorm possible uses for kelp in their dining halls, something Wirzburger found very productive and interesting.

The project has also allowed the participating schools in the project to have a hands-on opportunity to explore this burgeoning industry in the region. UMASS Dartmouth mentioned the trip they were able to take up to Maine to see the harvesting of kelp in action with Atlantic Sea Farms, a supplier for the project. Kirby Roberts, Marketing Director of Dining Services at UMASS Dartmouth, a partner on the project, was eager to share what they learned about the trip and how much they learned about the flexibility of using kelp in their dining halls.

“From our visit we could really see how kelp is changing the lives of these fishermen,” expressed Roberts, who visited a Kelp Farm for the first time in May, when the team was invited to Maine to visit Atlantic Sea Farms. On the trip the group was able to see how growing kelp can work in tandem with the lobster industry and can even help keep the oceans clean and healthy by preserving ecosystems and decreasing the intensity of currents and waves. Kelp Farming can create more job stability for fishermen: according to Atlantic Sea Farms, “climate change is already making landfall, and our future depends on finding new ways for lobster fishermen to work on the water while improving the health of our oceans.”

On the trip the team was able to go on charter boats and see the harvesting in action. What they noticed during their time on the water was that, “these lobstermen already have the tools to harvest kelp, so the switch isn’t this extreme change for them.”

After their time on the boats, the team was treated to an “educational kelp dinner” where they had a multi-course meal that gave the dining teams more inspiration for how they could incorporate kelp into their menus. As each dish was served the team was taught how the kelp that they are planning on using was incorporated and the best way to feature the product.

Though kelp has been used in food in many cultures for centuries (such as Kombu, which is a common ingredient in East Asian dishes), the dining team is excited to see if there are other cuisines where kelp could be incorporated. From their educational kelp dinner they had a taste of the possibilities and from there Wirzburger as well as the rest of the team have been exploring new and exciting applications for kelp in their menus. With dishes ranging from mushrooms with kelp puree to a kelp Bolognese, what Roberts and the rest of the UMASS Dartmouth team took away from the experience was to “treat kelp more as a profile enhancer in our dishes,” not making it a main focus but more as a herb or spice in the dishes. They’ve experimented with kelp in smoothies, broth, and (less successfully) beignets.

Beyond making an appearance on college menus, kelp also is being introduced into the MA Maritime curriculum. Environmental and Marine Science students will have an opportunity to look into the environmental impacts of kelp farming by conducting Environmental Impact Assessments; this opportunity will not only help them better understand the impacts of the food that they eat, but allow them to hone skills they may need in their professional careers.

Though kelp is still a long way from becoming as beloved and mainstream as kale (which once had the same associations of novelty as kelp), the team involved in this project is changing the minds and palates of everyone on their campuses.

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