While climate change remains a major societal issue still waiting to be addressed at a national level, more and more Americans are looking to see what they can do to make a difference, however small. Thanks to the popularity of books like The Omnivore’s Dilemma and documentaries like Food, Inc., interest in locally produced food as a way to both be healthier and friendlier to the planet has surged. In addition, there is growing interest in urban agriculture as an economic development and community revitalization strategy – with the potential to provide jobs, greenery, and healthy food to many inner-city neighborhoods that lack all three.
Yet even with the growing awareness, consumers who are new to the idea of asking where their food came from are sometimes confused about where to begin. In addition, the concept of eating local means understanding what foods are in season, and where to get them. Thankfully, as in so many areas, the Internet offers some useful tools that are enabling more people to buy and eat local food – and helping more local producers (including urban farmers) run sustainable businesses.
In New York City, consumers interested in shopping for local food can visit WhatIsFresh.com to find the locations of local greenmarkets, learn about vendors, and see which foods are in season and where they are available. The site offers a searchable directory of products (from Apples and Artichokes to Wheatgrass and Yogurt), and lets vendors provide updates about their offerings and schedules – helping to connect local producers to new customers.
Taking the idea to the next level is Food Hub – a full scale online marketplace for food buyers and producers. Run by Portland, Oregon based non-profit EcoTrust, Food Hub offers a compelling platform for regional farmers to reach a wide array of customers – including retail grocers, schools, institutional buyers, caterers, restaurants, bakeries, food processors, and manufacturers. Buyers can make specific searches and requests for products, and sellers can list their current inventory, along with upcoming offers. This enables local farmers and producers to sell some of their products in advance, and also respond to demand from local buyers.
For people interested in growing their own food, a growing number of sites help link people willing to work gardens with plots of unused land – including WePatch.org, Hyperlocavore, SharingBackyards.com and Garden Swap. Similiarly, CropMob has used the internet to organize groups of volunteers to help out at local farms and gardens. Started in North Carolina, the concept has spread around the country (check out this map of past CropMob events). Once these backyard gardens are harvested, VeggieTrader offers a way for people to trade or sell their excess bounty.
Of course even with all these developments, most Americans still get their food from a conventional supermarket, where information on how far food travels (and how its produced) isn’t generally provided. Still, there’s hope that things are changing even here. As just one example, snack food giant FritoLay now offers an online chip tracker which lets consumers find out which of its over 80 potato farms was the source for the chips in a particular bag of chips. All consumers need to do is visit the website and enter the product code. While not exactly health food, the company hopes that the transparency, along with the fact that most of its chips are produced regionally, will help consumers feel better about snacking on its products over its competitors.