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Fish fries are adversely being affected by rising costs of seafood and supplies

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Easter is about a month away, and that means fish fry season is in full swing. In the Pittsburgh area, churches, fire halls and VFWs are hosting weekly dinners. They're a major source of revenue for these groups.

But member station WESA's An-Li Herring reports some had to cancel the event this year due to the rising cost of seafood and other supplies.

AN-LI HERRING, BYLINE: During Lent, a wave of fish fries floods this corner of Pennsylvania.

(SOUNDBITE OF OIL BUBBLING)

HERRING: There are usually a couple hundred of them, and they take place every Friday until Easter.

(SOUNDBITE OF KITCHEN EQUIPMENT CLATTERING)

HERRING: Our Lady of the Lakes Parish, north of Pittsburgh, holds its fish fry in its activity hall. It looks like a school cafeteria, with rows of long tables. And when you walk in, it hits you - that salty, greasy goodness of deep fryers bubbling away nonstop.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: One fried fish.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yup.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: One french fries.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Clam strips.

HERRING: Volunteers serve more than a thousand customers here each week.

(CROSSTALK)

ANNIE CATANESE: Organized chaos is how I like to call it. Everybody knows their job, and they're learning it if they don't.

HERRING: Annie Catanese coordinates the fish fry at Our Lady of the Lakes. She says the best part is how the weekly dinners bring the community together year after year. But this year, her parish has had to confront the financial reality of inflation. It bumped up the price of its fish sandwich from 8.75 to $10. And it expects to make less money than usual.

The price hike hasn't kept Tracy Brandstadter away.

(CROSSTALK)

TRACY BRANDSTADTER: We've been coming here for years. And with the pandemic, they weren't open, so I'm so happy that they're here now.

HERRING: Other places haven't been so lucky. The Norvelt Volunteer Fire Department decided last fall to cancel its fish fry.

Mary Hontz usually helps to organize the event. But she says distributors wouldn't guarantee the 800 pounds of cod the fire hall needs for each week's dinner.

MARY HONTZ: And we just were afraid that if we told people we were going to have it and we got only 400 pounds of fish at 5 o'clock - who are we going to turn away, like, at 5 o'clock in the afternoon? So we just didn't want to do that.

HERRING: Melaina Lewis of the National Fisheries Institute says the seafood industry faces the same constraints that have squeezed the rest of the economy since the pandemic started.

MELAINA LEWIS: A lot of things closed down - factories, processing facilities. And so you're still trying to get folks back into working in a safe way and still bringing fish from water to table.

HERRING: Add in soaring shipping costs, and the price of cod has risen by almost 50% over the past two years, according to industry data. Other items are more expensive to conserve.

Hontz reviews a list of prices she printed out in the fall.

HONTZ: Tartar sauce went up $15 a jug. And, you know, ketchup went up. And there's no napkins. And there's no lids. And, you know - so we...

HERRING: She says the fire department would have had to charge about $5 more per sandwich. There wasn't much wiggle room because the fundraiser brings in tens of thousands of dollars the station needs to stay afloat from year to year.

HONTZ: A lot of people said, oh, you can't cancel it. We'll still come. Yes, they probably would have. Would they have come as much, and would we have been able to serve them?

HERRING: The department decided it couldn't take that risk, so it's finding other ways to raise money and hoping they'll draw as many customers as their beloved fish fries.

For NPR News, I'm An-Li Herring in Pittsburgh.

(SOUNDBITE OF CALUM GRAHAM'S "TABULA RASA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

An-Li became a reporter while completing her law degree at Stanford. In law school, she wrote about housing affordability, criminal justice and economic development, among other topics. She also served as the intern to NPR Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg in Washington, DC, helping Ms. Totenberg to cover the U.S. Supreme Court and other legal matters. Originally from Pittsburgh, An-Li interned with the investigations team at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette before joining WESA in August 2017.