Food insecurity and the invasive Asian carp are two familiar, longstanding issues in Peoria. But a new stakeholder group believes they've discovered a way to use one problem to solve another.
The idea of serving Asian carp from the Illinois River at the dinner table isn't a new one, but previous efforts to convince people to chow down on the fish have floundered.
A group of community stakeholders is trying a new approach. They see an opportunity to partner up the new Midwest Fishing Co-op, targeting the invasive fish with groups combating food insecurity.
"We want to provide them with a fresh, good-tasting product which is very healthy, very high in the Omegas. It has high in protein, and it has a very high iron content," said East Peoria businessman Roy Sorce, whose facility on the Illinois River's banks forms a central component of the new co-op's supply chain.
Sorce recently received approval to quickly freeze harvested fish from the river for shipment to processing facilities. The minced, still-frozen fish are then returned to his business for storage and sale.
The co-op is expected to harvest up to 15 tons of Asian carp from the Illinois River each year, stretching from Starved Rock State Park in the north to Peoria in the south.
The freezing process greatly extends the fish's shelf life. That's good news for people like Monica Scheuer, executive director of the Midwest Food Bank's Peoria division that distributes to more than 200 food banks across Illinois, Iowa, and Georgia.
"Fish is usually not something at all that they can get. At all. Just because of shelf life," she said. "It's just not within the emergency food system at all. So this is a great way to get a variety of protein sources."
But getting the raw product is only the first step. How does one actually eat Asian carp--and enjoy it? One cook said it's surprisingly simple.
"It's very versatile. It's a very mild tasting fish. So whatever you want it to taste like, you just mix it with whatever seasoning you want," said Clint Carter, president of the Midwest Fishing Co-op and co-owner of Carter's Fish Market in Springfield.
He said working with Asian carp isn't dissimilar to cooking with ground beef or turkey. On a recent July day, he cooked up Asian carp taco meat, teriyaki, and soy fish for the stakeholder group to sample.
Dr. Leslie McKnight, director of community health policy and planning for the Peoria City/County Health Department, was surprised by how pleasing the Asian carp taco meat was to her palette.
"I just need the tortilla, some lettuce and tomato, and a little sour cream, and I think I'm good. Some cheese. So, it tastes pretty good," she said.
McKnight is one of the key players in development of a Food Equity Hub as a grocery store alternative for the South Side of Peoria--a food desert. She sees opportunity with the Asian carp initiative.
"If we can harvest the Asian carp, and we can learn how to cook it, this can definitely be another alternative of a healthy food product for our community," McKnight said.
The Southside Farmers Market is serving as a pilot project for the Food Equity Hub. When it opens, cooking classes are a component of the Hub's intended offerings.
Scheuer said she's eager to explore the possibilities of this "out-of-the-box thinking" on Asian carp.
"It tends to be a nuisance here in the Peoria area, or in central Illinois, and to be able to utilize it, and to really reach out to us and to to emergency food system to really make an impact. It's brilliant. It's great," she said.
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