Front Lines in Groceries and Food Processing

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Frank Palermo is a family man. First and foremost.

In the times prior to COVID-19, that meant his warm, loving wife, two talented sons, and a daughter he treasured. With his kids in school and active within student groups and sports, it grew to mean their teams and schools, too, and everyone involved with them. And as a small business owner, it expanded to include his hard-working staff, a team whose efforts he appreciated so much, he footed the bill for a weeklong trip to Puerto Rico for them simply because “they deserve it.”

However, since the pandemic, it’s grown exponentially bigger. Frank’s family has become the entire community in which his seafood market is set, a sleepy, restored village on the South Shore of suburban Long Island, as he stepped up to provide for its people in ways bigger box stores were unable to.

Faced with grocery-supply shortages (New York was at one point the epicenter of the global virus), Frank made his essential business even more so, completely changing not only how his modest market operates, but also how it serves the community. As residents decried their inability to find basic staples, fresh produce, meat, and necessities, such as cleaning supplies, he began tapping into his trade network and supply chain to bring what was needed to his neighbors. Counter-front ordering of restaurant-grade seafood became a sign-up-sheet system fulfilling the desperate requests of families looking for ways to stay fed while also staying safe.

As the weeks went on, the list grew. But so did the general need of his community. And from a deep desire to do more in the face of mounting helplessness and hardship, his Blue Cooler program was born.

Frank opened up Claws Seafood Market seven years ago as a rebuttal to poor mass-market seafood standards; as a passionate, quality-focused fishmonger, he took a hard line when it came to providing seafood that exceeded regulated guidelines in terms of freshness and rotation. So rather than waste it, he decided to break out the family’s big blue cooler and stock it with whatever wasn’t sold that day. He filled this Igloo with remnants of whole-fish cuttings that were too random or imperfect for sale, but still perfectly usable. Items he normally smoked — salmon, local bluefish — made it in, too, all cleaned, individually packed, and hygienically stored.

… And he gave it away.

Quietly, humbly, and without fanfare, Frank welcomed those in need to “take what [you] need” from this blue cooler, protected from shame or judgment under the anonymity of after-hours availability.

It started with the fish, but as his wife and kids leapt in to help, the Palermos’ generosity has grown with their inventory. The blue cooler is now joined by baskets on picnic tables, filled with fresh vegetables, baked goods, and more. The picnic tables that, before the pandemic, hosted community residents on summer afternoons past.

Best of all, the blue cooler has become a rallying point for others to do their share, too. Economically challenged families drove from as far as half an hour away, in hopes of finding something to make for dinner … and took no more than that, leaving enough for others in similar straits. A young mother swallowed her pride to ask for help with diapers … and got it. Other seafood wholesalers and food distributors found themselves caught up in the goodwill, dropping off extra supply and products earmarked for community use. And the momentum continues to build — slowly, yes, but surely.

But of all the things from Frank Palermo’s blue cooler, the most valuable thing is the one that you can’t actually put into it: hope.

Tags: Giving

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Written By

Su-Jit Lin

Su-Jit Lin is a food, travel, wellness, shopping, and lifestyle writer who is passionate about writing stories that help. See Full Bio

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