FARMINGTON — The Better Living Center, Farmington’s only health food store, has opened a kitchen to serve warm, healthy meals to the community.
The launch seeks to address a lack of healthy meal options in Farmington and food waste at the Better Living Center, owner Wayne Drake said.
“One of the things in the year that I’ve owned the store I’ve noticed is how much food we waste. It’s kind of a big deal,” Drake said. “We started looking at food preservation.”
The BLC has to throw out around $12,000 of spoiled food a year, especially due to Maine’s short growing season where produce comes in all at once. “And that was just unacceptable to me,” Drake said.
The center is not the only store losing profits, throwing out spoiled food. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, food waste is estimated at between 30 to 40% of the food supply and 31% food loss is at the retail and consumer levels that has corresponded to about 133 billion pounds and $161 billion worth of food in 2010.
The kitchen was a result of addressing “how can we take this short growing season and make the most of it,” Drake said.
With the environment in mind, the center is also using compostable, plant-based materials for utensils, cups, trays, etc., Drake said.
The self-sufficient move is in line with Drake’s goal to make a self-sustainable foundation for the center.
In November, the Franklin Journal reported the center was facing the brunt of supply chain issues. Drake said he was focusing on stocking stores with goods from local farmers and artisans, creating a hyperlocal model to become more self-sustainable.
“It’s super important that we do whatever we can locally to keep our small farmers and vendors, artisans in business,” Drake said. “That’s been our theme. My theme this spring is to do collaborations with local people.”
“It’s a changing mindset … of trying something local and realizing that local doesn’t mean you’re sacrificing anything … price, quality, taste. In fact, all of those things can be improved with the right local (vendors),” Drake added. “I want to prop up good local people who are doing good things and just amplify their voice.”
Center manager Chanda Luker is at the helm of the kitchen as the lead cook alongside Jason Hawkins.
Luker, who has been with the center since 2020, said the shift in job duties has been a “dream come true” after years hoping to open her own cafe or restaurant.
“I absolutely love it because cooking is one of my favorite things to do,” Luker said. “I spent a lot of time in the kitchen with my aunt and my mom.”
Luker views her relationship with cooking food as a part of the Cambodian traditions she was raised on.
“In Cambodia, all the women spend a lot of time in the kitchen prepping, chopping different herbs and spices,” Luker said. “And they always feel like food, our relationship with food, has the power to heal and transform our bodies if we do it correctly.”
The meals are inspired by the Cambodian dishes Luker ate as a child, though always with her own twist, guided by intuition and what’s available that week.
Hawkins additionally brings “creativity” to the menu creation, Luker said.
“I’m not a traditional kind of cook,” she said. “I just put things together. I can’t tell you how to make something. You just have to watch me.”
Luker loves “feeding the community with healthy, nutritional, fresh, nourishing and delicious meals.”
The center is offering a variety of meals depending on the day. Drake loves the burrito bar the most, which he calls an affordable, healthier, “poor man’s Chipotle.”
And with Hawkins’ help, the center is serving vegan options daily — one of the only places in town to consistently offer vegan dishes.
“I want every time (customers) come in that there’s something different; we’re always pushing,” Drake said.