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Real Time Farms Makes Eating Local Transparent

A new website takes restaurant menus and maps them, showing exactly where each ingredient is from. If you really care about eating local (or really liked the meat you had), you can track down every farm you’re eating from.

These days, it’s almost de rigueur for a restaurant to describe its food as "local." But do you know which farm that arugula on your wood-fired flatbread came from? Probably not. Real Time Farms is trying to fix that by bringing an unprecedented level of transparency to what we eat.

Launched in the spring of 2010 by a former Google software engineer, Real Time Farms is a crowdsourced online food guide with an ambitious goal: "to collectively document the whole food system." It might be thought of as a Wikipedia for food.

On the Real Time Farms homepage you can plug in your zip code to see a map of farms, farmers’ markets, and restaurants in your area. By using the "pins" feature, you can then see the connections between them. You can easily find, for example, the specific farms that supply a restaurant with its bread, produce, and meat. By looking at a restaurant’s page on Real Time Farms you can actually see a version of the menu with links that connect specific ingredients with their suppliers. If you were wondering, the Alder Wood Bistro in Sequim, Washington, gets its arugula from Red Dog Farm in nearby Chimacum.

Real Time Farms describes itself as a "for-profit social venture." It’s free for farmers and artisans and eaters, but restaurants pay a fee to be listed.

All the information on Real Time Farms is crowdsourced, and the site’s database is still far from comprehensive. Many parts of the country have only a handful of farms and restaurants listed. To get a sense of how useful it could be, check out the coverage of Ann Arbor, Michigan, where the site launched. There are also a good number of listings in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, and New York City.

The ultimate success of the site will depend on whether it can inspire the kind of volunteer participation that has made Wikipedia such an incredible resource. That said, it’s certainly a worthwhile experiment. There’s a lot of interest in eating local right now, but there isn’t an authoritative guide to help people do it.