In this July 2014 file photo, The Lost Kitchen chef and owner Erin French prepares meals during dinner. Credit: Ashley L. Conti / BDN

FREEDOM, Maine — It took a grassroots anti-hunger coalition six months of very hard work to raise $100,000 in 2020, the year it was founded.

This year, things changed overnight thanks to the popularity of one restaurant with a creative reservation system.

On Sunday, Erin French made donating to Waldo County Bounty the suggested first step in the process of trying to get a reservation at her nationally renowned restaurant, The Lost Kitchen in Freedom. Less than 24 hours later, donations to the group far exceeded what was raised in all of last year — and the funds are continuing to roll in.

French announced the partnership with Waldo County Bounty via her newsletter and Instagram. People who make a donation in any amount will receive early access instructions for the reservation process.

Even small donations of just $1 or $2 could add up, she said.

“Imagine the power, if all of us together made a donation,” she told her followers on Instagram. “It’s such a beautiful thing. I hope it works. I hope you guys go out and support it.”

They did, at a rate that has eclipsed the wildest dreams of Colleen Hanlon-Smith, one of the cofounders of the anti-hunger group. She said the coalition has received thousands of donations from all over the world, in amounts that range from $1 to $500.

“We’re all shocked,” Hanlon-Smith said Monday. “I tend to be a pretty optimistic thinker, and this blew it out of the water. It’s really cool.”

The infusion of cash is a very big deal to Waldo County Bounty, which was formed at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, which organizers expected would make food insecurity issues much worse. It’s run on a “shoe-string budget,” Hanlon-Smith said. The group has no paid staff members and uses donated money to buy produce from farmers, support a local gleaning program, help local gardeners and more. Last year, the organization bought $20,000 worth of food from local farmers and aimed to triple that this year.

Now, that won’t be a problem.

“It is a game-changer, in terms of the impact it’s going to have, especially because Waldo County Bounty has been a very nimble, resourceful, widespread and connected organization,” Hanlon-Smith said. “It’s really exciting to imagine what the potential will be at this magnitude.”

The organization came onto French’s radar last year, when the chef opened an online farmers market as part of her pandemic pivot. On the landing page for the market, French introduced Waldo County Bounty, telling people that the group helped ease hunger locally and also supported farmers. Because of that, people donated more than $5,000 to the organization, which meant a lot, Hanlon-Smith said.

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Last week, the Waldo County Bounty team met in person for the first time ever. They made tortillas, planned for this growing season and also wrote French a thank you card and dropped it in her mailbox. The next day, the chef called Hanlon-Smith and told her she wanted to do a larger partnership with the organization. The end result was adding the donation step to the reservation process.

“We realized there was something really magical that happens here with these postcards,” French said on Instagram. “We got to thinking, how can we turn this into something that could really matter and make a difference.”

In 2018, the restaurateur decided to make written postcards the only way to get a reservation at The Lost Kitchen. Right away, the tiny Freedom post office was inundated, as more than 20,000 people sent in cards to try their hand at getting a slot at the restaurant. Once postcards are received, reservations are awarded through a random lottery.

French’s decision to encourage those who want to dine at her restaurant to donate to the nonprofit group was generous and creative, Mary Leaming, one of the group’s founders, said.

“This is huge. It enables us to expand and grow,” she said. “Erin has lent us a fraction of her power. And leveraged that into actual dollars, which means actual veggies for actual human beings in Waldo County.”

One of the things Waldo County Bounty does is to purchase local food from local farms and give it to food pantries, soup kitchens and other hunger relief organizations. That helps farmers as well as folks struggling with food insecurity, she said. This is what the bulk of the funds that have been raised through The Lost Kitchen’s reservation system will support.

As well, Waldo County Bounty gleans seedlings from farmers and producers and gives them to people who will grow them in order to donate. It also has set up about 10 give-and-take tables around the county, where gardeners and homesteaders with excess produce can bring it to share with others.

Last year, the organization purchased about 25,000 pounds of food from local farms, which helped feed 8,000 hungry Waldo County residents.

In her video on Instagram, French pointed out that the same farms also supply food to The Lost Kitchen.

“It’s not only for food insecurity,” she said. “Waldo County Bounty helps purchase local foods from the farmers that we work with at The Lost Kitchen. It’s putting that delicious, good, healthy food into people’s hands who can’t necessarily have it.”

French’s fans seemed happy to join in.

“Love this so much,” one wrote.

“Thank you for asking your community to support food insecurity initiatives in Waldo County,” another said. “The instability of the last year has taught us all how fragile and tenuous our sense of stability can be.”