In this July 9, 2014, file photo, the Lost Kitchen's chef and owner Erin French prepares meals during dinner. Credit: Ashley L. Conti / BDN

People hoping to score a reservation at one of the nation’s most exclusive eateries, The Lost Kitchen in Freedom, are being asked to first make a donation to help Maine farmers affected by so-called forever chemicals found in their land and water.  

Erin French announced Friday morning that donating to the PFAS Emergency Relief Fund for farmers is the first step in the process of trying to make a dinner reservation.

“This is a problem that affects us all,” she wrote on The Lost Kitchen’s website. “Your contribution … will help create a safety net for farms impacted by providing lost income replacement, access to mental health services, and provide critical resources for soil testing that will help Maine farms and food among the safest in the nation.”

French’s much-lauded cuisine celebrates the produce and other foods that are grown and raised locally.  

Her post included photographs of Maine farmers affected by the discovery of chemicals in their soil and a brief explanation of how the contaminated industrial sludge got to farms in the first place.

Just an hour after she made the announcement on the restaurant’s Facebook and Instagram pages, thousands of people had seen it and many said they already had donated. French wrote that after making a donation, people would receive instructions on how to submit a request to make a reservation at The Lost Kitchen and be entered for a chance to win dinner for two and a two-night stay at the cabins on the property.

“What a beautiful and clever way to raise funds for such a worthy cause,” one fan wrote on the restaurant’s Facebook page. “With such a huge following one can only hope that many will contribute.”

Last year, French made donating to a local charity the suggested first step in the reservation process for the first time. She chose Waldo County Bounty, a grassroots anti-hunger coalition, and within 24 hours, people had donated more than $100,000 to the cause. Altogether, the effort raised $325,000 to help provide access to locally-grown foods for people experiencing food insecurity.

The amount raised shocked the coalition’s founders.  

“I tend to be a pretty optimistic thinker, and this blew it out of the water,” Colleen Hanlon-Smith told the BDN last spring after the donations began flowing in. “It’s really cool.”

This year’s cause hits close to home for Waldo County farmers, some of whom have been among the first in Maine to share publicly they have discovered high levels of chemicals on their land. In January, the owners of Songbird Organic Farm in Unity told their customers that their well-water and soil had tested positive for high levels of the chemicals.

“I can’t tell you how heart-wrenching this is for us to learn and now to communicate,” farmers Adam Nordell and Johanna Davis said. “In a world where we can all buy conventional produce and out-of-state organic vegetables and grains at a cheaper price any day of the week, the one currency we have as local organic growers is our transparency and the trust of our customers.”

Treated sludge, also called biosolid compost, was widely used as a fertilizer beginning in the 1970s. The practice was temporarily halted on Maine farmland in 2020, after it was correlated to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS. Those chemicals have been strongly linked to health problems such as liver damage, thyroid disease, decreased fertility, high cholesterol, obesity, hormone suppression and cancer.

The rapidly unfolding understanding of the extent of the problem in Maine has sent shockwaves through the state’s farming community and beyond.

Donations go to the PFAS Emergency Relief Fund, which was established in February by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association and the Maine Farmland Trust to help affected farmers.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association.