FREEDOM — Over 25,000 people have donated more than $950,000 to support local farmers dealing with PFAS contamination, thanks to a special fundraising effort by Lost Kitchen chef/owner Erin French when she opened the restaurant’s 2022 reservation system March 31.

The contributions went to the PFAS Emergency Relief Fund, co-administered by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association and Maine Farmland Trust. The funds directly support Maine farmers through income replacement, testing and mental health support. PFAS (per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances) have been found in farmland, wells, wildlife and fish in areas where sludge containing the “forever chemicals” was spread as fertilizer.

“This was such a natural partnership for The Lost Kitchen,” French said in an announcement issued May 9 by MOFGA. “So many of these impacted farms and farmers are not only our neighbors and colleagues, but our friends. The Lost Kitchen is so deeply tied to the agricultural community here in Maine as we draw our inspiration with every dinner seating from the fruits of the season.”

Sarah Alexander, MOFGA executive director, said in the announcement, “The crisis that our farming community has been facing with PFAS contamination has created a lot of uncertainty and hardship. The generosity that The Lost Kitchen has inspired exceeds all of our expectations and comes at a critical time to provide a safety net for impacted farms.”

To date, more than 13 farms in Maine have found concerning levels of PFAS contamination in their water, soil or food products. The Maine Department of Environmental Protection is currently testing more than 700 sites throughout the state.

Maine Farmland Trust President and CEO Amy Fisher said, “The overwhelming response to The Lost Kitchen’s fundraiser not only helps us deliver timely resources to impacted Maine farmers, but has helped raise the profile of the PFAS issue nationally.

“With these funds, MFT and MOFGA will continue to respond to the emergent needs of PFAS-impacted farmers who are facing unimaginable threats to their businesses and their families, and explore additional infrastructure grants and reimbursements for more proactive testing and research,” she said.

“We thank The Lost Kitchen and the thousands of people who gave to the PFAS Emergency Relief Fund for stepping up to ensure a vibrant future for Maine agriculture.”

PFAS substances have been widely used since the 1950s in products ranging from food packaging to fire-fighting foam. PFAS have recently been recognized as contaminants in agriculture and are believed to largely be entering soil through the application of biosolids, industrial sludges and ashes, which may contain these compounds that are difficult to break down.

Over the past few years PFAS have emerged as a growing contaminant of concern for the food supply in Maine and nationally in the United States, and have been linked to human health problems including some types of cancer.

“MOFGA and MFT created the PFAS Emergency Relief Fund in response to the direct needs of our farming community. This collaboration shows what’s possible when everyone works together to address an urgent need,” Alexander said.

The fund is designed to help pay for initial PFAS testing on farms that choose to do their own testing as well as mental health resources, and to provide short-term income replacement for farms that the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry has identified as having high test results. This fund will serve as a safety net, providing interim support until impacted farmers can access the state’s longer-term support programs. Any Maine farmer dealing with PFAS contamination is eligible to enroll, regardless of whether or not a farm has previously worked with either of the organizations.

French said, “We are honored and humbled to have been able to use our platform to raise awareness about this critical issue facing not only Maine, but our country — and to support Maine farmers and our local food system.”

In total, the PFAS Emergency Relief Fund now exceeds $1 million through this partnership and the generous gifts of Maine foundations, individuals and partners — including Bangor Savings Bank, Farm Credit East, Good Shepherd Food Bank, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, the Henry P. Kendall Foundation, multiple funds within the Maine Community Foundation, the Quimby Family Foundation and the Elmina B. Sewall Foundation.

More information on PFAS and the PFAS Emergency Relief Fund can be found on the websites of both MOFGA and MFT.

The Lost Kitchen is a 48-seat restaurant owned and operated by French, author of The New York Times bestseller, “Finding Freedom.” Now in its ninth season, the restaurant is situated in the historic Mill at Freedom Falls. In the last two years, its team has helped raise nearly $1.5 million for various causes. For more information, visit findthelostkitchen.com.