The semi, loaded with salmon, black cod, and halibut, pulled into the Maple Village parking lot roughly one week after departing Washington state. Oran Hesterman and three volunteers made quick work of it: more than 800 pounds of frozen fish had to be unloaded, hauled to his friend Laura Seligman’s garage, and distributed to members of the Ann Arbor Wild Salmon Minyan.
AAWSM is an informal buying club made up of forty to fifty Ann Arborites who are eager to support sustainable food practices, especially ones that involve, in Hesterman’s words, “the best-tasting fish in the world.” Twice a year, members order fish from a Washington-based fishermen’s collective, which is shipped en masse and distributed by Hesterman and Seligman.
AAWSM began six years ago, the result of a business trip and a dinner party. Hesterman, who is president and CEO of the Fair Food Network and has worked with food systems throughout his career, visited Lummi Island, Washington, during a site visit to the Pacific Northwest. There he met fisherman Riley Starks and learned about reef netting, a fishing method based on ancient Native American practices. The process is heavily regulated to prevent overfishing, and, unlike many commercial fishing methods, causes relatively little damage to the fish. The result is a high-quality salmon, which the Lummi Island Wild Co-op markets to restaurants and upscale groceries such as Whole Foods.
Shortly before Hesterman left the island, Starks shoved a frozen salmon in his backpack. “It won’t leak,” he reassured Hesterman. “Just try it.”
By the time Hesterman arrived in Michigan, the sockeye was thawed and ready for his dinner guests. It was the best salmon they’d ever tasted. Hesterman called Starks and asked if the co-op would sell them fish directly.
And that, says Hesterman, was the birth of the Minyan. (In Jewish law, a minyan is the number of Jews required to conduct certain religious duties, traditionally, ten men.) “We were just eight,” says Seligman, “but we knew it would grow.”
Since that dinner party, AAWSM has grown solely through word of mouth. Members appreciate the opportunity to pay wholesale prices for high-grade fish–this year, from $7.70 to $14.95 per pound–and the direct link with the fishermen.
“It’s an opportunity to learn things we wouldn’t necessarily know as consumers,” says Seligman.
Buying clubs pose a few logistical challenges, not least how to efficiently distribute hundreds of pounds of frozen fish. (Before taking over Seligman’s garage, AAWSM passed out fish in a parking lot downtown.) Despite the challenges, says Hesterman, “it’s the easiest community organizing I’ve ever done.”
This year, AAWSM members were not the only ones to enjoy Lummi Island catch. Two of the eighty boxes delivered in Ann Arbor went to Food Gatherers.