Here's Why Your Smartphone Is the Key to a Better Food World

The future of sustainable food involves tech geeks and entrepreneurs every bit as much as it does farmers and chefs.

(Photo: Florian Kopp/Getty Images)

Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

Mark Sullivan had a plan to help Austinites eat more local food, but he didn’t plant an urban farm or open a locavore food truck to do so. He built a website.

Sullivan cofounded growmingle, a new company that is using technology and digital “mapping” to connect people in Austin’s vibrant local food scene—including farmers, chefs, distributors, advocacy organizations, retailers, and consumers—with one another. Recognizing the fragmentation of the local food world in Austin and the difficulty many producers have connecting with customers, the growmingle team has set out to become the Airbnb of the Texas capital's locavore movement by interactively mapping it. Eventually, growmingle will have a Yelp-like mobile app guiding users to purveyors of locally grown food.

“For the broad market to have access to [local food], there needs to be an easy and effective discovery platform to find out about real local food initiatives happening around them,” Sullivan says. “We want to be the most trusted name in Austin local food.”

GrowMingle had plenty of food-tech startup company last week in Austin, where the technology world convened for SXSW. The site is just one of hundreds of examples of cutting-edge technology being used to encourage greener, cleaner eating. Danielle Gould, who founded Food + Tech Connect and writes about the intersection of food and technology for Forbes.com, has counted more than 800 tech companies currently focusing on aspects of the food industry. In some cases, the food tech space has become hyper-specialized; New York City alone has more than 150 e-commerce companies selling all-in-one food kits to home cooks.

More broadly, mobile and tech solutions shorten the distance between us and our food, allowing us to shop our values, cook more at home, eat healthier, and, like GrowMingle, find local food restaurants and producers in our area. For would-be food businesses, crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter are raising capital for projects that would have been difficult to fund a decade ago. Producers are using technology to better market their offerings to the right people. And technology is helping food-supply chains to be more transparent, says Rachel Greenberger, founder of Food Sol at Babson College.

She points to Red’s Best, a seafood company headquartered on Boston Harbor, which has developed a tracking software that follows a fish from the ocean to the dinner plate. When purchasing a piece of fish from Red’s Best, consumers can scan a QR code with a mobile device and see a biography and photo of the fisher who caught the fish.

“Technology is very powerful, because the storytelling aspect of it is, broadly speaking, introducing us to the people who grow and make our food,” says Greenberger.

Sometimes, however, these technologies don’t get off the ground. A few years ago, Will Turnage wrote about the failure of a project he worked on that would have allowed groups of people to buy and split whole animals directly from ranchers who raised them. Turnage wrote that he and his team stopped developing the site, which they called groupme.at, because the technology the team developed couldn’t account for the complexity and variation within the existing systems for raising, processing, and butchering animals.

“It became too much for any of us to tackle in our spare time, and some of the solutions we talked about (e.g. a custom internet-friendly slaughterhouse) would require too much capital or would only serve a small region,” Turnage wrote at Food + Tech Connect.

But most agree that technology—specifically mobile technology—is key to the future of the local movement and food justice in general. At this week’s SXSW Interactive conference, several sessions focused on the intersection of nutrition and technology, including one suggesting that mobile technology and digital access are crucial for increasing access to healthy foods for families living in food deserts, and another session discussing how lifestyle apps and devices are helping Americans lead healthier lives.

For Sullivan and his team at growmingle, success will be determined not just by how well they’re able to monetize their concept but “how well we impact the communities we’re in.” He adds that the end goal is for GrowMingle online tools to help Austin locavores see the movement from a bird’s eye perspective—but ultimately he hopes to get folks out from behind their screens and meeting face-to-face.

“We think visualizing these connections is an important way for people to see that it’s real,” Sullivan says. “We want to put more money into the pockets of people who produce local food.”

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