By Andrew Smiley
At the 2011 TEDxAustin (an offshoot of TED, a global conference that invites the world’s leading thinkers and doers to share insight and ideas about technology, entertainment and design), Sustainable Food Center (SFC) appeared with a live chicken, prominently featured as part of the display. Though comfortable and happy, the hen looked a mite odd amid the other, mostly high-tech, electronic, interactive exhibits featured in the Ideas Worth Spreading-themed event, but she helped convey the important message that SFC is not shy about mingling elements of healthy food and farms with today’s technology. And although several distribution challenges still exist within local food systems, SFC has been using this philosophy to meet them head-on.
In 2007, along with forward-thinking collaborators at the Texas Department of State Health Services obesity prevention program, WebChronic Consulting, LLC and Naegelin Farms, SFC created Farm to Work. This workplace wellness and local food marketing initiative allows employees at work to place an order and pay online for a basket of fresh produce from a local farmer.
The farmer harvests only the amount of produce that has been preordered and paid for, and delivers the goods during a scheduled weekly distribution time. The ordering, payment and administrative processes exist entirely online—helping maintain low overhead costs and resulting in high value for customers. The convenience of online ordering combined with workplace delivery makes choosing healthy, locally grown fruits and vegetables easy. The website also provides opportunities for online communication and education with farm photos and stories, weekly basket contents listings and searchable recipe pages.
SFC also leads the Farm to Cafeteria program, which allows farmers to sell to universities, hospitals, school districts and other institutions. The first version of the program relied on phone calls, faxes, emails and spreadsheets filled with clunky formulas. But our new Farm to Cafeteria web portal allows farmers to enter their wholesale product information and institutional buyers to browse available items and make purchases—all with the ease of Amazon.com and the style of Etsy.com. The online application also creates packing slips and invoices for the farmers to use to manage harvesting, packing and weekly deliveries.
The built-in efficiencies of these two web-based tools allow each partner to concentrate on their strengths. SFC maintains relationships with farmers and builds relationships with new work sites and institutional customers, while using our administrative capacity to manage all the processing and payments to the farmers for both programs. Farmers can then focus on farming, while individual buyers through Farm to Work and commercial buyers in Farm to Cafeteria can spend more time ordering, cooking, serving and eating healthful, local food. More good news is that both online applications are available for use by other organizations to create or manage their own similar efforts.
Technology can present much-needed solutions to many of the challenges facing our burgeoning local food movement. SFC is helping to lead the way.
For more information about the Sustainable Food Center visit sustainablefoodcenter.org. For more info on TED, visit ted.com.