Focused on Growing Market for Local Food, Tech Startup Provides Tools to Increase Market Efficiency
November 6, 2013 | Jenny Smiechowski
In 2011, playwright, theater director and technology consultant Erika Block started the company Local Orbit with the goal of facilitating more efficient local food networks. By providing sustainable food producers with sales and business management tools, Block hoped the company could help address some of the inefficient infrastructure issues in our modern-day food system.
Over the past two years, Block has watched her vision for the company gradually transform into reality.
“Our team has doubled,” says Block. “We’ve tripled the number of markets on our platform. We currently support local marketplaces and trading networks in nine states, with over 500 food producers and 2000 buyers using the platform.”
Local Orbit’s web platform provides local food sellers with a complete back-office system that facilitates e-commerce, financial management, inventory management, logistics, integrated marketing, reporting, and analysis.
The company is launching two new services in 2014: a boot camp-style training program for start-up distribution networks and entrepreneurs, and a new vendor management service to support institutions committed to increasing local procurement.
Local Orbit’s expansion has already impacted local food systems in the areas where the company has worked, says Block. “The growth in sales means we’re making it easier for chefs to buy from farms they know and trust – and helping keep money in communities,” says Block.
The company has also provided support to several new producer co-ops and food hubs as they’ve launched.
“For entrepreneurs who are creating new distribution models, one advantage of using a shared technology platform is that it’s being developed with the input of people working on the same problem, so there’s a tremendous knowledge base through our team and through our users,” says Block.
Block says one of Local Orbit’s greatest challenges in the last couple of years has been the sheer scope of the issues they are addressing. She says the company has successfully worked to prioritize and create manageable steps to address the very large problems inherent to the modern food system infrastructure. The company also works to create a shared infrastructure that is adaptable enough to meet the needs of its diverse clients.
At this point, Block says, the goals of Local Orbit have not changed much since the company’s inception; they still aim to build profitable local businesses, healthier communities, and to get more local food on people’s plates. “While local food is growing rapidly, it’s a tiny fraction of total food purchased in the country: $8 billion vs. $1.75 trillion,” says Block.
Block asserts that this unbalanced ratio cannot be attributed to low demand. “The demand exists. People want food from producers they know and trust, and to keep money in their communities,” says Block.
This growing demand for local food has Block feeling pretty optimistic about both the future of Local Orbit and the food system as a whole. “Sustainability across the supply chain is becoming a mainstream goal,” says Block. “People are building interesting technologies and smart businesses. And both private investment and public policy is shifting to support this. It’s a great business opportunity. It’s a viable economic development strategy. And it will lead to more resilience in the food system.”