Ocean to table, Fish to Families A sustainable solution to San Diego's food insecurity

Story by Hannah Ly

SAN DIEGO, Dec. 4 — Every Wednesday morning, Marcus Twilegar heads to the Tuna Harbor Dock in Seaport Village, marking the kickoff of his weekly routine. His purpose: collecting the week’s catch from local fishers, an average haul of roughly 200 pounds. Amongst nearly 20 different species, including bluefin, swordfish and tuna, Twilegar secures whatever fish is available that week.

This bounty is not for his culinary pursuits but dedicated to crafting diverse and nutritional seafood meals for the Fish to Families program. By the end of Thursday, alongside his team, the San Diego chef has prepared 250 meals destined for distribution by local nonprofit organizations.

Started as a COVID-19 initiative, Fish to Families has become more than just a solution to food insecurity. What may seem like a routine distribution of meals is, instead, a much larger tale that origins from the depths of the ocean. It’s a lifeline, connecting the sweat and toil of local fishers to the dinner tables of families in need. Moreover, it has become a narrative of unity, sustainability and the unwavering resilience of the San Diego community.

In the summer of 2020, the Fish to Families initiative sprang from the collective efforts of San Diego’s fishers, dedicated chefs, farmers and community organizers. With the backing of the California Sea Grant for one year, the program initially provided 150 meals per week. As community support swelled, so did the program’s impact, scaling up to serve up to 800 meals per week by the year’s end.

Originally co-founded by chef Phillip Esteban and self-proclaimed “workaholic” chef Twilegar, Fish to Families now operates under Twilegar’s leadership.

“There’s a bunch of little benefits to this program. It not only helps people with food insecurity, but all the way down from the fishermen,” Twilegar said. “When COVID happened and restaurants shut down, we had to figure out a way to make sure they could sustain their business and on top of that, we made sure we were getting fish from somebody.”

According to the 2023 annual issue brief of San Diego Hunger Coalition, nearly one in four people in San Diego County (23%) experience nutrition insecurity as of March. The hunger relief sector in San Diego County provided more than 35 million meals across all programs, meeting all of the estimated needs for that particular month.

This success, however, was partially facilitated by the now-expired federal CalFresh (SNAP) Emergency Allotment Program. Despite the relative stability in March, there were 13.4 million meals missing in June due to the loss of the temporary food assistance — marking a return of pre-pandemic meal gap levels.

Operating on a more modest scale, the Fish to Families initiative, with its current allocation of 250 meals weekly, acknowledges the immense challenge of food insecurity in San Diego.

“The ocean gives us what they give us,” Twilegar said. “I just hope we can keep the program going and we get the right people talking about it.”

The program has secured funding for the next 22 weeks and continues to incrementally expand its mission. Through a phased approach, the initiative will gradually increase the number of meals provided each week.

Through collaborations with nonprofit organizations like Feeding San Diego and the Asian Pacific Islander (API) Initiative, Fish to Families is able to extend its reach to vulnerable populations, particularly families and seniors facing economic hardships.

"I am so grateful to the fishermen of San Diego County for providing me with these nutritious meals of fresh-caught fish and vegetables because I am a low-income person,” said Jackie M., a regular visitor of the Filipino American Veterans Association (FAVA) Hall — one of the many distribution points of these meals. “San Diego is very expensive, and grocery store food is very expensive, so my heart goes out to all of the fishermen. … I’m getting a little emotional, I can almost cry.”

API Initiative Government and Public Relations Director JoAnn Fields coordinates the 50 meals distributed to FAVA Hall. According to Fields, she chose to work with Fish to Families to support San Diego seniors and the local businesses that benefit along the way.

“I appreciate that there even is a program like Fish to Families because of that ecosystem from the fishermen, to the chefs, to our seniors, so that it’s a win-win for everyone,” Fields said. “We need to support programs like this. … So that more can be served.”

Beyond sourcing fresh seafood, Fish to Families actively collaborates with local farms in Chula Vista and Ramona, ensuring that no viable produce goes to waste. By purchasing surplus crops or those deemed imperfect for the supermarket shelves, the initiative minimizes food waste and encourages financial stability of these agricultural establishments.

“If the tomatoes are sunburnt, then they’re not going to sell it at the markets, but it’s still a delicious, beautiful, organic tomato. Then we (buy and) process it into meals for Fish to Families.” Twilegar said. “These families are actually getting fish straight off the boat and plants right out of the ground.”

Likewise, the program uses the same resourceful mindset when collaborating with the fishing industry. Adjusting their selection based on those who could not sell their entire catch, Fish to Families both supports the fishers’ livelihood and ensures a sustainable utilization of resources.

Twilegar highlights that the program achieves multiple objectives. Beyond aiding individuals facing meal insecurity and supporting the commercial industry, Fish to Families is an educational platform where chefs learn how to properly handle, prepare and cook an array of seafood — skills not commonly taught in basic culinary training.

Twilegar grills California spiny lobster alongside live lobster sellers at the fourth annual Tuna Harbor Dockside Market Lobsterfest on October 8, 2023.

Its relaunch earlier this year was thanks to a federal grant from the San Diego Fishermen’s Marketing Association. President of the organization, Peter Halmay, chose to relaunch the Fish to Families program as a collective effort to fight food insecurity in San Diego.

“It’s one of my favorite programs. I’ve been involved with it for the past three years and I continue to talk about it,” Halmay said. “It’s the part of our involvement in the community that we absolutely need to more of. … It’s not there to make money, it’s not there to sell a lot of fish, it’s there to make contact with the most needy in the community.”

To learn more about food insecurity in San Diego and how you can help, take action through the San Diego Hunger Coalition or volunteer at the San Diego Food Bank. To offer support through donations, visit Feeding San Diego's website.

Seniors at FAVA Hall hold up the seafood meals they plan to bring home for dinner on November 17, 2023.