Startup Profile: Foodtree Mobile App Helps Consumers Trace Path of Food from Farm to Plate
November 2, 2011 | Noelle Swan
Anthony Nicalo recalls helping his grandfather, Papa Bill, plant an acre of farmland in Erie, Pennsylvania, as soon as he could walk. He attributes his connection to the land and to growing food to these early experiences on the farm. Nicalo now lives in Vancouver with his wife and two year old son. Although his family no longer has a working farm, he still wants his son to grow up knowing where he gets his food.
Nicalo is currently the CEO of Foodtree, a company that he founded with Derek Shanahan in 2010 to make it easier for people to trace the food on their plates back to the farmer who grew it using mobile and web applications. Foodtree as described on the company’s website “is a platform that makes it easy to share detailed food and food source information with friends and neighbors, bringing food communities closer to the people feeding them.”
How it works
Farmers, distributors, and food producers can submit pictures of their products to Foodtree using an iPhone application to add information about which farmers’ market, restaurant, or grocer the food is bound for.
Consumers, on the other hand, can use the Foodtree mobile application to add their own photos of foods that they find at markets and restaurants. Producers can then link these photos to their farm’s profile and confirm that any information provided by the consumer is accurate. As more and more consumers contribute to Foodtree, Nicalo said that he hopes it will create an online community where consumers can connect directly to farms while simultaneously sharing great finds with each other.
“As our platform grows, we envision it being useful for consumers who just want to discover particular foods or who are trying to decide between the local or organic strawberries,” Nicalo said, in a telephone interview. With a simple scan of a quick response barcode, customers will be able to see how far those strawberries have traveled and receive insight into the farmers’ practices.
A starting place to learn about healthy food
So far, Nicalo said consumers using Foodtree are those who tend to possess an interest in finding local, whole foods. He hopes that in the future the Foodtree application will be a starting place for people who want to learn to eat better. In the end, he hopes to bring transparency to the food system and make it “normal” to understand the journey that food has taken.
Making that happen is no small undertaking. “The problem is as simple and complicated as getting information to travel with food,” he said. A single Braeburn apple, he explained, comes from a farm that has specific practices. That apple could live its life out as an apple or it could become applesauce, apple pie, or apple butter sold in one of many different locations. “Building the tools to convey all of that information, which is highly complex, in a simple way has been our primary challenge,” Nicalo said. He then added, “We haven’t completely solved it yet.”
Developing that complex network takes time. Foodtree launched in several cities in Canada in 2010. Boulder, Colorado became the first U.S. city included this past June. Beta testing has just begun in 10 additional U.S. cities, including Los Angeles, Washington D.C., Boston, and New York City.
In these new locations, where Nicalo and his team have not yet developed relationships with producers, Foodtree starts with an existing network of farmers markets. Vendors that participate in these weekly markets are the first producers included in the application. It takes additional legwork to grow each regional network.
Foodtree does not have specific sustainability criteria that producers must meet to be included in the network. “We are a transparency platform, we are not an arbiter of truth,” Nicalo said. Instead, producers are encouraged to provide information about their practices. So far, Nicalo noted, farmers interested in participating in Foodtree employ sustainable practices of production.
Foodtree invites producers to list their information at no charge. For a monthly service fee, they can use premium services such as store locator maps and mobile marketing solutions.
“We’re not yet certain if Foodtree will be known around the world as a brand or if there will be a variety of niche applications,” Nicalo said. For example, he said that the Foodtree database could be used to power applications focusing on free-range, gluten-free, or vegan products.
Whatever form the brand takes, Nicalo said, integrating it into the world food market will require significant expenditure by both Foodtree and individual food producers. He recently pitched the application to a San Francisco gathering sponsored by Slow Money Alliance—a grassroots organization, which connects investors to projects promoting sustainable food production. Nicalo said he made four promising connections with potential investors. In his pitch, Nicalo also encouraged investors to support local food producers, so they could afford to access his premium services.