An incomplete trek on the Pacific Crest Trail and a battle with Type 1 diabetes led Edmonton's Lisa Bélanger to launch her freeze-dried meal company, Flat Out Feasts.
Bélanger was two months into the hike, which runs more than 4,000 kilometres along the U.S. coast from Mexico to Canada, when she had to stop.
"My body was starving to death, I couldn't move the energy from food into my cells while I was hiking this trail," she said of the 2019 trip. "It was quite a shock and I ended up having to come home and deal with that."
Once she was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, Bélanger resolved to learn as much as possible about the lifelong autoimmune disease, including how she could continue to lead an active lifestyle. She quickly figured out that a low-carbohydrate diet would help her manage the ups and downs of her blood sugar.
"But I discovered that there were no backpacking meals or dried meals available that were low-carb. They all had a base of carbohydrates, whether it's rice, pasta, potatoes, or beans, which would really cause havoc on my health," Bélanger explained. "This was becoming a barrier for me in terms of finding food that I could eat on multi-day backcountry trips."
The idea for Flat Out Feasts, which launched in January, was born about a year after her diagnosis, as part of an effort to not only create healthier and better-tasting backcountry food but also to make multi-day hiking more accessible for people with specific dietary needs.
Like her hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, it was not easy to get the company off the ground. The most challenging part of getting to market, Bélanger said, was meeting all the required regulations and completing all the steps associated with high-risk food products like meat, before it was even possible to test how well the packaged meals would do with customers.
Bélanger and her husband, Colin Pals, developed food safety plans for each recipe and packaging to meet federal regulations. They also found a commercial kitchen facility where they could work, using Ocean Odyssey Inland's space. Armed with those tools, they were able to apply for a food handling permit, but Alberta Health Services told them they were the first to do so for a freeze-drying process, meaning there was no precedent on which to base the application.
"Neither of us knew, AHS didn't really know what they were looking for," she said. "I think we just tried to keep moving forward one step at a time and one challenge at a time ... just overcoming that until we could get it approved and launched."
When Bélanger first had the idea to start Flat Out Feasts, she didn't realize how innovative freeze-drying the meals would be. She was drawn to the method because it allows food to maintain its shape as opposed to shrivelling up like dehydrated meals.
This is possible because there isn't much heat used during the process. Food is frozen at about -40 degrees Celsius, and then a vacuum removes moisture through sublimation as opposed to evaporation.
"It actually goes straight from an ice state to vapour, and skips the liquid phase. It allows the food to maintain its texture, its shape, and when you rehydrate it, it's a lot more like a fresh meal," Bélanger told Taproot. "I have tried dehydrated meals ... they're often chewy, not that tasty, and take a long time to rehydrate. We just knew that that's not the route we wanted to go down."
While the freeze-drying aspect offers convenience for people travelling or hiking, the meals aren't just for those activities. Bélanger said they offer a healthy alternative to microwavable meals at any time. There are five recipes so far: turnip and beef shepherds pie, cheesy chicken casserole, creamy chicken and cauliflower, beef chili with zucchini, plus Cajun jicama and pork skillet.
Now that Flat Out Feasts has launched, Bélanger can turn her attention back to the goal that was the original catalyst for the business. She's headed back to hike the Pacific Crest Trail from start to finish, beginning on April 13.
The trek will take five to six months, and she's stockpiled her meals in preparation for the trip. "I have a bunch in my basement that I'll have shipped to me on the trail, because I expect that finding low-carb meal options will be more challenging, especially in very small towns," Bélanger said.
"I'm really excited to have healthy food that's not just Ichiban noodles every day. I think it'll help me power through and hopefully finish."
Hear more from Bélanger on Episode 9 of Bloom, Taproot's podcast on innovation in Edmonton.