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The Lost Kitchen’s Erin French helps raise nearly $1M for Maine farmers affected by PFAS

The Lost Kitchen, 22 Mill Street, Freedom, chef and owner Erin French prepares meals during dinner Wednesday. The Lost Kitchen reopened after closing their successful Belfast location abruptly last summer.
Ashley L. Conti
The Lost Kitchen, 22 Mill Street, Freedom, chef and owner Erin French prepares meals during dinner Wednesday. The Lost Kitchen reopened after closing their successful Belfast location abruptly last summer.

Acclaimed restauranteur and author Erin French has leveraged her international following to help raise nearly $1 million for Maine farmers whose land or water is contaminated with so-called "forever chemicals."

And the owner of the famed restaurant, The Lost Kitchen, as well as advocates for farmers, said they hope other states will learn from Maine’s experience in the face of what is likely a nationwide problem.

Every year, tens of thousands of postcards pour into Freedom, Maine, from around the country from people hoping to spend an evening inside the old mill building that has become The Lost Kitchen. In an interview on Tuesday, French said she knows people come not just for her team's culinary creations but for the entire, farm-to-table experience – an experience that is only possible with fresh food from local farmers. So when French began hearing about PFAS chemicals turning up on local farms last year, she said it shook the close-knit agricultural community – and her personally.

"It was heart-wrenching for me to see, one after another,” French said. “It was like one week you learn of one, and then you find out about another farm, and then another farm. It's like the rug keeps getting taken out from people who are close members of our community and dear friends."

French responded by including a request for donations as part of The Lost Kitchen's reservation system, which involves random drawings of those postcards from an estimated 30,000-plus people for the restaurant’s May-to-October season this year. And earlier this week, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association and Maine Farmland announced that more than 25,000 people responded to French's appeal, donated more than $950,000 for a PFAS Emergency Relief Fund operated by the two organizations.

“We are very excited about the outpouring of community support for PFAS contaminated farms,” said Sarah Alexander, executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, or MOFGA. The emergency fund will help farmers pay the high costs of testing for PFAS and cover any immediate economic losses. The Maine Legislature and the administration of Gov. Janet Mills recently set aside $60 million to help farmers impacted by PFAS pollution. And that's on top of $30 million to test more than 700 sites that are considered to be at higher risk of PFAS contamination based on the source of sludge that was potentially spread on the land.

But setting up any state-run assistance programs and getting people enrolled will take time. So Alexander said the roughly $1 million raised for the PFAS Emergency Relief Fund, with the help of The Lost Kitchen, will fill that gap while raising awareness of the problem.

"I think we have been able to share the story of what's happening on farms here in Maine but put it in the context that this is a national issue,” Alexander said. “And we very much hope that other states will be able to learn from what's happening here in Maine."

Maine is, indeed, on the forefront of an issue with national implications.

More than a dozen Maine farms — many of them located in the small towns surrounding Freedom — have been shut down or scaled back operations because of PFAS pollution linked to municipal or industrial sludge that was spread on farm fields, in many cases decades ago. The program was licensed by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection just as it was at state environmental agencies around the country where reuse of sludge as fertilizer was touted as a way to lower costs for both farmers and wastewater treatment plants.

But some sludge spread on farms in Maine contained extremely high levels of PFAS that were discharged by papermills or other industrial sources. Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, are a family of thousands of compounds used to create waterproof or grease- and stain-resistant coatings in countless household products. They’ve been used for decades in nonstick cookware, fabrics, paper food packaging and in the firefighting foam that is so effective and knocking down fuel fires.

But PFAS have been dubbed "forever chemicals" because they linger so long in the body and the environment. And a growing number studies have linked some of the chemicals to cancer, kidney disease, high cholesterol, reduced birth weight and other health problems.

There are now a cluster of farms stretching from Fairfield to Freedom trying to figure out next steps after discovering contamination. French said raising money for those farms -- some of whom have been her partners for years -- just made sense.

"I wouldn't be the cook that I am without my farmers,” French said. “They are the ones that really bring the magic. Sometimes I just feel like I just put the dishes together, but it's really their produce that is the magician of it all. These are community members that are near and dear to us."

But as the author of two best-selling books and the primary personality in a reality television series now entering its third season, French said she knows The Lost Kitchen has a social platform to help educate people outside of Maine about an issue that she says is "worth screaming about."

"Really I'm in awe of the farmers who have been affected by this and their courage to speak up, to stand strong and fight against to try to make a difference,” French said. “Because I think it's not just a difference for right here in our community. I think it has the potential to be national. These Maine farmers are at the forefront of helping secure food systems throughout our country.”

MOFGA and Maine Farmland Trust plan to continue accepting donations to the emergency fund for as long as the money is needed.