Farm-to-Table Goes Digital

How one Internet entrepreneur aims to map your meal from start to finish.

Farm to Table, Cara Rosaen, digital food system, Real Time Farms
Cara Rosaen: Making your food system transparent, one click at a time. (Photo: Courtesty of Cara Rosaen)

Sure, we’ve become accustomed to restaurant menus detailing the origins of our ingredients, but Real Time Farms, a crowd-sourced food website, wants to go further. Much further. The brainchild of husband-and-wife team Karl and Cara Rosaen, the site aims to tap into the collective knowledge of food lovers and producers across the country to create a one-stop hub for every step of the American food system.

Launched in April of 2010, Real Time Farms now hosts 4,800 farmers and food artisans. Pages can be updated for free by farmers or fans with pictures, information on how the food is grown, and the stories of the people producing it. (Restaurants in turn pay a fee to link their menus back to every supplier they use). By signing up, individuals can share their favorite food sources, check out recommendations from other fans, and ultimately map their meal. We caught up with cofounder Cara Rosaen to talk about how she thinks the site can make a difference.

TakePart: Aside from building a database, what’s the goal of Real Time Farms?

Cara: We want to show that it’s possible, with the technology we have right now, to make the entire food web transparent. And not only transparent, but meaningfully so.

TakePart: You’ve been involved in all sorts of entrepreneurial ventures, from used books to craft jewelry. Why did you decide to focus on food?

Cara: Originally I went to grad school to be a therapist. What I was really passionate about was helping people live healthier lives. Then I heard about [global climate movement site] 350.org and read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and all of these things just started to get under my skin. I began to realize that there really are some huge issues with the food system.

So when [my husband] Karl came up with the idea of Real Time Farms and said, “Ok, we have to map out the whole food system and give people the ability to trace their food back to the farm it came from—you know, the actual farm,” I thought, “Oh, God, that’s so important, but good luck!” But then I saw that he was starting to have some real success with it. I just had to jump in.

TakePart: So I have to ask, what does it mean to be the Director of Vegetable Outreach?

Cara: (Laughs) I have no idea, but it really is the perfect title. As the cofounder, you wind up doing a little bit of anything and everything. The title reflects upon our desire to get people excited and engaged about where their food comes from. We’re talking about food, after all; something that’s supposed to be fun and delicious and sensual!

TakePart: How have you managed to create such a large database in less than two years?

Cara: Well, in addition to the vendors who post their businesses and the individuals who actively contribute, we’ve launched a food warrior internship. Every three to four months we get this new batch of mostly young people—but also older people in their fifties and sixties, which is just so cool—and their job is to learn about their local food system by collecting images, video, stories and investigating the growing practices of the farmers and food artisans in their area.

TakePart: Is your goal to change how people eat?

Cara: One of the things that has been really important to us is to connect the whole food system, rather than giving people a prescription for how to eat; to provide the information people need to make their own decisions. We’re about so much more than just “local” or “sustainable.” It would be so exciting to me if some big chain like Panera wanted to tell their consumers where their food was coming from on an ingredient-by-ingredient basis. I want this to be in every place that people go to eat—even schools, because parents should have the right to know what their children are eating each day.

TakePart: Have you discovered any surprising facts about the suppliers on the site?

Cara: One story that really sticks out for me is this farmer, Amy Heath of Living Stones Farm. She had a suburban upbringing with no farming background until one of her relatives went to prison. Many former inmates fall back into the system because it’s so hard to find a job, so she decided to start a farm to offer them a living and hopefully help them start their own business with this new set of skills. Knowing her story, I would be happy to eat anything that came from her farm. If you know the story behind your food it makes the food taste so much better. I don’t know how that works, but it does.

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