Play with your food — on a map.

I ordered a meal last week from Danny Schwartzman at the Common Roots Cafe in Minneapolis — baked mac and cheese with a beer and roast chicken with a glass of white wine. Since the order and the delivery were all via email, I haven’t actually eaten anything.

But, with Schwarzman’s help, I did make a couple of pretty cool maps with a new analytical tool called Sourcemap from the Civic Media Lab at MIT. For those interested in food miles, carbon footprint and how the local food movement might affect everything from the economy to health, the maps can be pretty instructive. That’s especially true if others join in and start creating their own maps. I would love to hear how people might make use of something like this.

Sourcemap was created to make it easier to see where the ingredients of something — anything, from your laptop to a bottle of water to a piece of Ikea furniture — come from. Anybody can create a map and make it available to the world. It seemed to me that Ground Level’s focus on local food in the past month or so made it an ideal topic for practice.

Since Schwarzman already uses his restaurant’s web site to display how much local food he uses, I figured he’d be game for this, and he was. He referred me to his menu last Thursday and I ordered a starter and an entre. He then told me where he got everything, from the chicken to the pepper.

Here’s the mac and cheese starter (with a glass of Surly beer). Since this is a new project, the map isn’t displaying well for everybody. You pretty much need a browser other than Internet Explorer unless you have version 9. If you can’t see it well, you can try here to see the original at Sourcemap. But your best bet is to look at it in Firefox, Safari or Chrome.

Click on the numbers and the plus sign for more information, or click on the headline, which will take you to the original map on Sourcemap. You can shift the map and zoom in like you would on any Google map.

The map instantly gives you an appreciation for how something simple actually can be quite complicated. The first question might be about those supply lines to California. They don’t call Gilroy the garlic capital of the world for nothing.

Schwarzman makes a couple points. First, part of the stress he puts on food sourcing is organic, not just local. Second, he measures his portion of local by dollar volume, not simply by counting all ingredients equally. So flavorings and spices might come from far away while the main ingredients like Durham wheat macaroni and Iowa and Wisconsin cheese are closer to home.

Next, the main course, roast chicken with white wine. Again, if it’s not displaying for you, go here.

Again, many of the main ingredients are close to home, but this time the spice sources take you around the world. Not much black pepper grows in Minnesota. A little salt and olive oil from Italy, bay leaf from Turkey show how tough it is to be totally local. Correct me if I’m wrong. But again, a little closer scrutiny shows you the big items are from nearby.

What about the California carrots? Schwarzman says he working on getting a greater local supply and on storage space.

The chicken map also uses an additional feature of Sourcemap, which is to show how far the food traveled and to try to figure out the carbon footprint of a product. You have to click through to the original map for this. The chicken dinner involves 47,000 miles when you count the pepper and the olive oil and the bay leaf. That’s both instructive and a caution about how much faith you might want to put in a simple number.

The carbon footprint data are clearly a work in progress at MIT. I used those estimates of carbon dioxide emissions for ingredients that Sourcemap included in its database. If it didn’t have a value, I didn’t plug one in. For the weight of each item, Schwarzman provided the numbers.

And that is the beauty of the program. Anybody can make one of these for a restaurant meal, your favorite dinner at home, the supply lines to a farmers market or to the produce or meat and seafood sections at Cub. The Common Roots examples are interesting in their own right, but would be far more informative in comparison with others.

I encourage people to give it a try, and if you do, drop me line so I can link to your work. Once you have the information, a map like these takes just a few minutes to create.

  • This is a great tool! I think it really highlights just how “local” is “local.” Common Roots Cafe doesn’t just talk about local and organic, they do it. And the menu is awesome.

    This tool should also highlight something else. We live in MINNESOTA!! Our local food choices are limited at the least when we talk about certain fruits and veggies, and Danny hit it on the head, local in some of these foods means storage.

    Locavores in Minnesota have our work cut out for us. Stay strong!