MIDDLEBURY, Vt.-How did wild Alaskan king salmon become a menu item in the dining halls of Middlebury College in Vermont?

“It all started with a student,” said Matthew Biette, Middlebury College director of dining services. Camille Padilla, a Middlebury College sophomore from Sitka, Alaska, is a passionate advocate for Alaskan fisheries and a member of a fishing family. When she arrived at Middlebury last year, she noticed that farmed salmon often appeared on the menu. Determined to replace it with wild fish at least once a month, she met with Biette in February of this year and made her request. He surprised her by saying, “Why not feature wild salmon all year round?” Excited, she went to work to make the necessary connections.

Padilla contacted the Bellingham, Wash.-based Seafood Producers Cooperative (SPC), a 60-year-old organization owned by more than 500-member fishermen that specializes in selling line-caught salmon, halibut and black cod. The result was Middlebury College’s decision to buy 25,000 pounds of fresh-frozen salmon fillets.

“Camille put me in contact with Jeff Reynolds, the sales manager at SPC, which has a plant in her hometown of Sitka. After talking with him, I realized we could cut out the middleman, buy direct, and spend slightly more money for fish that is healthier for our students and the environment,” said Biette. The fish shipment arrived at the College on Sept. 1.

Middlebury College Executive Chef Bo Cleveland fully supported Biette’s decision to buy the wild salmon, which swim in open waters and eat natural food. Cleveland had read about a study (http://albany.edu/ihe/salmonstudy/completestudy.html) released in January of this year by SUNY Albany researchers that showed that farm-raised salmon have higher levels of heavy metals and less nutritional value than wild salmon. Also, the feed for farm-raised fish can contain numerous additives, such as dye to change the flesh from gray to the pink or red color found in wild species. Antibiotics to combat rapidly spreading diseases and pesticides to reduce the parasite population are also common elements in the feed that allow farmed salmon to be raised in pens.

Cleveland also noted that, according to the Web site of the Canadian-based nonprofit Living Oceans Society, wild salmon do not live in close proximity to one another, as do the farm-raised salmon, and therefore swim in a cleaner environment. Concentrations of fish-farm waste that accumulate on the ocean floor around the pens pollute those sites. This situation forces a constant migration of the pens to more productive areas that will soon be contaminated.

“Buying this salmon was the right thing to do for several reasons. Our goal is to serve good tasting, nutritious food to all 2,350 of our students,” said Biette. He also noted Middlebury College’s commitment to the environment-the College has won a number of awards for its environmental practices-and to local farmers, who supply more than 25 percent of the College’s food.

“For years Middlebury has supported local agriculture and participated in Vermont Fresh Network, an organization that connects farmers, chefs and consumers. The decision to buy wild Alaskan salmon complements that tradition. It’s part of the whole idea of fair trade and environmental sustainability. Even though SPC’s fishermen are far away, their salmon makes sense as part of our menu,” said Biette who also plans to serve the salmon to 1,400 guests at an upcoming inaugural luncheon for new Middlebury College President Ronald D. Liebowitz.

Once he came to an agreement with SPC, Biette capitalized on his longtime partnership with a local distributor, Burlington Food Service (BFS). BFS provided cold storage for the salmon and even added 5,000 pounds to the order to sell to Vermont restaurants.

“Middlebury College has long been recognized for its commitment to improving the environment through its teaching, research and campus operations,” said Nan Jenks-Jay, Middlebury College director of environmental affairs, “but dining services is charting an impressive new course by purchasing sustainable foods and helping to create stronger food economies in rural communities both here in Vermont and in Alaska.”

Other environmental initiatives operated by Middlebury’s dining services include robust recycling and composting programs, and use of the College’s greenhouse and organic garden to supply greens, herbs and fresh produce. More information about “green dining” at Middlebury is available at /offices/enviro/initiatives/green_dining.htm.

Most important, how does the wild salmon taste? According to Padilla and Reynolds, once people get a taste of it, they will not go back to farm-raised salmon. Padilla hopes that Middlebury’s decision will encourage other schools to make the switch. “Alaskan salmon costs a bit more, but even if colleges and universities offered it only part of the time, the benefits would be worth it,” she said.

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