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Startup Uses Crowd-sourced Data to Map Food Supply Chain in Effort to Help Consumers Find Sustainable Food

June 19, 2012 |

What do you get when you cross Yelp, Wikipedia and Twitter, GIS and sustainable agriculture? The answer is Food Sprout.

Food Sprout is an ambitious attempt by Linda Chang and Andrew Naber to map the world’s food supply chain. It aims to be a Wikipedia-like platform that brings transparency to the food chain by tracing the movement of our food. On it, consumers, farmers, restaurants, distributors, and anyone else who has a hand in bringing food from seed to stomach can track, share and receive information about their food’s origins.

For instance, a restaurant can upload its farm suppliers, and a consumer looking up that restaurant can see that it sources its ingredients from 20 farms in a 100-mile radius. Knowing that, the consumer may choose to eat there, rather than the fast food chain that gives no information about where it gets its ingredients.

The idea for Food Sprout sprouted just over two years ago, as Chang and Naber became increasingly aware of the problems in the food system, from the destructive forces of mono-cropping to the push for export-oriented production. Chang says that after watching films such as Food, Inc. and reading articles about these issues in the news, they began asking basic questions about where things come from – and the idea for Food Sprout was born.

As Chang puts it, “The world’s food supply chain is complex, to say the least. There is no single supply chain, no single system.”

With such a complex food chain (chains, rather), mapping the various threads of production, distribution and consumption is no small task; it may even be “the impossible,” says Chang. But it’s worth a try.

“We see what we are doing as a giant experiment – how far can we get with a very open platform, Yelp-style, crowd-sourcing as much information as possible?…It’s a we’ll see. We’re building it as we go.”

She adds, “My feel of all of the various stakeholders we’ve interviewed over the last two-plus years is that there’s still a lot of basic mapping that can be useful to people…I know it seems a little esoteric, but then again I think there’s something to being able to see the spatial relationship and all of the different layers.”

Detailing the food chain in this manner will allow consumers to make more informed choices about their food. By helping them build an awareness of the businesses that they are supporting, Food Sprout may cause them to reconsider some of their food choices, and opt for more local options.

Screenshot of Food Sprout page with a listing of restaurants that source local, organic, or sustainably produced food.

“Can a solution like Food Sprout push down on the consumer awareness side and cause some of those choices to start to shift?” asks Chang. “I think it’s interesting to try. We have to try it and see what happens.”

Food Sprout also makes it easier for restaurants and distributors to source sustainable foods and promote an organic and sustainable food chain. Chang says she hopes that once it becomes evident that consumers care about where their food comes from – and spend their money accordingly – businesses will make more of an effort to provide local, sustainable food. And vice versa.

“Business owners and consumers start to encourage each other to behave in a different manner,” says Chang. “We’re looking forward to seeing what behavior starts to manifest itself as people upload and share.”

For small businesses that lack the capacity to build this kind of communication infrastructure, Food Sprout could be a real boon.

“You might find smaller actors in the system,” says Chang. “They’re already willing to collaborate with each other locally, but their market reach gets overshadowed with brand power…What could an open source mapping resource do for those smaller actors in the system?”

She adds that some big name retailers, such as Whole Foods, do a great job of displaying where their products comes from. Food Sprout will give smaller outlets, without the resources to do that kind of promotion, the chance to showcase their local offerings, too, making them more competitive in the marketplace.

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At this point, Food Sprout is largely self-funded (with help from “a handful of friends-and-family angel investment,” as Chang describes it). As it expands, it will seek other sources of revenue, perhaps through online advertising or paid market research.

Says Chang, “There’s a lot of desire out there for this information, but there just isn’t a clear understanding of how the information can be monetized.” She adds, “It’s this question of how far can you go? And how do you really prove that this is valuable information?”

The next step right now, says Chang, is to examine the various partnerships they can use to build traffic and relevancy. Food Sprout currently has around 700 registered users, most of whom found out about it by word-of-mouth or direct email marketing.

Chang encourages everyone to get on the site and try Food Sprout out.

“Take food that you find in your pantry or your refrigerator and see what happens,” she says. She explains that one of the neat things about crowd sourcing is that you can actually see your influence. You might upload information about a local bread supplier – and then a few weeks later see that a restaurant you like started sourcing from them.

That organic growth is both the bane and beauty of crowdsourcing. In order to receive information, people must first share it.

“People want more. You press a button and the whole system should be revealed to you,” says Chang. “Eventually the system will start to be revealed – as more and more data gets uploaded.”

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