Renowned restaurateur and author Erin French has tapped into her international followers to help raise nearly $1 million for Maine farmers whose land or water is contaminated with so-called “eternal chemicals.” “.
And the owner of famed restaurant, The Lost Kitchen, as well as farmer advocates, said they hope other states will learn from Maine’s experience dealing with what is likely a national problem.
Every year, tens of thousands of postcards flock to Freedom, Maine from across the country from people hoping to spend an evening inside the former mill that became 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 whole farm-to-table experience — an experience that’s only possible. with fresh food from local farmers. So when French first started hearing about PFAS chemicals on local farms last year, she said it shook the close-knit farming community — and her personally.
“It was heartbreaking for me to see one after the other,” French said. “It was like a week, you learn one, then you learn another farm, then another farm. Taken 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 draws of these postcards from around 30,000+ people for the restaurant’s May-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 answered French’s appeal, donated more than $950,000 for an emergency relief fund. PFAS managed by both organizations.
“We are very pleased with the influx 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 PFAS testing and cover any immediate economic loss. The Maine Legislature and the administration of Governor Janet Mills recently set aside $60 million to help farmers affected by PFAS pollution. And that’s in addition to $30 million to test more than 700 sites deemed to be at higher risk of PFAS contamination based on the source of the sludge potentially spilled on the ground.
But setting up state-run aid programs and getting people to register will take time. So Alexander said the roughly $1 million raised for the PFAS Emergency Relief Fund, with help from The Lost Kitchen, will fill that gap while raising awareness of the issue.
“I think we were able to share the story of what’s happening on the farms here in Maine, but put it in the context that this is a national issue,” Alexander said. “And we really hope other states can learn from what’s happening here in Maine.”
Maine is, indeed, at the forefront of an issue with national implications.
More than a dozen farms in Maine — many located in small towns surrounding Freedom — have been closed or scaled down due to PFAS pollution from municipal or industrial sludge that was spread on farm fields, in many cases decades ago. The program was authorized by Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection, as it was in state environmental agencies across the country, where reuse of sludge as fertilizer was touted as a way to cut costs for farmers and sewage treatment plants.
But some sludge spread on Maine farms contained extremely high levels of PFAS released from paper mills 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 have been used for decades in nonstick cookware, fabrics, paper food wraps, and in the fire-fighting foam that is so effective in extinguishing fuel fires.
But PFAS have been dubbed “forever chemicals” because they persist in the body and environment for so long. And a growing number of studies have linked some of the chemicals to cancer, kidney disease, high cholesterol, reduced birth weight and other health problems.
There is now a group of farms stretching from Fairfield to Freedom trying to figure out what to do next after discovering the contamination. French said raising funds for these farms — some of which have been his partners for years — made sense.
“I wouldn’t be the cook that I am without my farmers,” French said. “They’re the ones who really bring the magic. Sometimes it just feels like I’m just putting the dishes together, but it’s really their products that are the magician of everything. They’re community members who are close to us and Dear.
But as the author of two bestselling books and the lead personality of a reality TV series now entering its third season, French said she knows The Lost Kitchen has a social platform to help educate people outside of Maine on an issue that she says is “worth shouting about.”
“Really, I’m in awe of the farmers who have been impacted by this and their courage to speak up, to stay strong and to fight to try and 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 the systems food across our country.
MOFGA and the Maine Farmland Trust plan to continue accepting donations to the emergency fund for as long as the money is needed.