The sustainable and local food movements have no shortage of devotees. But awareness doesn’t always lead to action. And despite the growth of these movements, it should come as little surprise that fast food companies like McDonald’s continued to post record sales in 2011.
That’s where FarmPlate comes in. Billing itself as "Yelp for the sustainable foods community," FarmPlate wants to make it easier for Americans to live the locavore life. On the consumer-side, the Yelp comparison is fairly spot-on: users can search for food, suggest listings, and leave reviews.
But in addition to serving consumers looking for food sources off the beaten path, FarmPlate also offers specialized accounts to farmers, food artisans, and restaurant owners. For $195 a year, clients receive detailed, customizable profile pages that can be linked to their local suppliers. For example, a deli owner in New York City can link to the dairy farm upstate where her Swiss cheese is made, along with the cattle rancher in New Jersey who supplies her corned beef. This innovative idea is what CEO Kim Werner calls the "Food Web." "It’s been a powerful tool for businesses to show transparency about who they source from," she says. "As well as their commitment to the sustainable food base."
Transparency is a key part of FarmPlate’s vision for a locavore nation. Faced with a barrage of "organic" and "natural" labels on supermarket shelves, it can be difficult for consumers to know which products are healthier or better for the environment than others. The Food Web, along with the site’s user community, should—in theory—weed out the pretenders. That said, Werner says her staff has erred on the inclusive side when approving submissions.
"The idea is if the business is showing some inclination or commitment to the space, then we’re hoping FarmPlate will actually be a valuable sourcing tool for them and encourage them to source more products locally." Along with facilitating transparency, the personalized pages can be used to put a human face on local and sustainable food producers.
"It really does seem like a no-brainer for a farm to be listed," says Dean Carlson, a former bond trader turned farmer at Wyebrook Farm in Honey Brook, Pennsylvania. "The enhanced version of their listing also makes sense to me as it gives a farm a chance to differentiate itself and tell its own story."
While FarmPlate may indeed be a "no-brainer" for newer players like Wyebrook, the benefits to well-established producers may be less obvious. That’s part of why FarmPlate partners with grassroots and nonprofit organizations like the Vermont Food Bank and the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York to provide altruistic incentives to new clients. For example, for every producer who signs up for an upgraded account, FarmPlate will donate 50 meals to Vermont families in need.
Launched in August 2011, and with about 40,000 current listings, FarmPlate isn’t the only local food directory out there. And some might argue that Yelp, with its extensive filtering methods, is designed to suit people’s sustainable cravings just fine. But as FarmPlate grows, Werner wants it to become more than just a directory, stressing that in order to really change people’s habits, it requires more than simply easy access to artisanal cheese.
"People should be able to easily find what they’re looking for, and then have resources and content to help them to cook with these products or other tips for sustainable living. I think it really needs to be a destination lifestyle site."