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Jun 23, 2009
By Paul McRandle

When I decided to join the 21st century and picked up a new iPhone, the lure of the iApp topped my list of reasons (if not excuses) to make the purchase.  And among the heap available free or for little money, I was intrigued by those dealing with food—how to find local foods, what’s in my food and what it’s all going to cost.  With  maps and a compass on the 3GS phones, I got to wondering if I could track down raw milk, find stands of unpicked wild mushrooms, scan bar codes for environmental details or at least locate the nearest the farmers market. Not quite, but there are some interesting options available.

Locavore ($2.99)
At $2.99, Locavore is a bit more expensive than the average iPhone application, but the promise of tracking in-season food, use of NRDC ’s and Local Harvest’s excellent databases, and its ability to detect where you are is enticing.  In some ways, it stands up.  The in-season list of produce not only shows you what’s available in your area, but lists items by how little time remains before they go out season. For instance, there are only two more weeks left in the strawberry-growing season in New York state—good to know if you want to stock up and freeze fresh, puréed strawbs. There’s also a coming attractions list of fruit and veg soon to be in season, which will literally whet your appetite. And you can browse by food item, the main interest of which is seeing where items like broad beans or cardoons are growing (and if you don’t know what cardoons are, Locavore provides a link to Wikipedia entry as well).

Locavore, however, is lacking some important items provided by cheaper apps, the most obvious of which is a shopping list.  Furthermore, it only provides fruit and vegetable listings. If you want to find local fish, meat or milk you’re out of luck. It will show you which markets are nearby, but you can’t search for markets in other locales and though I live about 7 miles from Manhattan’s biggest farmers’ market by far, at Union Square, that listing doesn’t show up among the 26 green markets that appear for my area (which includes some farther away). More annoying still, it lists all markets in an area regardless of whether they are open or not—10 out of the 26 markets that popped up won’t open until July.

$2.99 isn’t much, but this app needs more to do more work itself and rely less on links to external databases to make it really worthwhile.

Farm Fresh NYC ($2.99)
Produced by Thinkenhaus, Farm Fresh NYC is much more local and a better value than Locavore if you happen to live in New York City’s five boroughs. It provides in-season listings of produce as well as seafood, but like Locavore skips meat and dairy. Within its seafood listings, Farm Fresh NYC includes warnings for high mercury in swordfish and tilefish but not for tuna, and it notes that flounder and cod are overfished but not monkfish. These inconsistencies make it a not terribly reliable guide either for health or environmental concerns.

That said, Farm Fresh does provide a grocery list as well as a list for items you are waiting to arrive in season.  Its farmers market directory covers markets in every borough, listing them by neighborhood and will drop a pin in a Google Map to show you where the market is. Strangely for a product that lists seafood, it does not give listings of fishmongers in the city.

As useful as it is, it’s a shame Farm Fresh only covers New York City now, but Thinkenhaus promises upcoming versions for San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago and New Orleans.

iLocavore (free)
Produced by Oh My Brain, iLocavore is free and that’s just as well. Providing national listings without taking advantage of the iPhone’s geolocation abilities, iLocavore forces users to drill deep down in its menu system. It took four steps to get from Products & Producers to Fruit & Vegetables and then I was confronted by a random list of items ranging from A Perfect Pair (available in Napa, California) to the Winter Green Farm in Noti, OR.  Lacking a search tool, iLocavore makes finding find produce in my area a fruitless venture. However, I can learn that there are 17 Dazbog Coffee Company locations in Denver, Colorado—all listed individually on the Coffee Shops page.  Unfortunately for a local food app, this one drowns in its own information, proving itself about equally useless no matter where you might be.

Good Guide (free)
Years in the making, the Good Guide is the brainchild of a University of California, Berkeley professor of environmental and labor policy. The focus of the guide is its rating system, which evaluates over 70,000 products according to health, environmental and fair labor criteria, giving them all scores ranging from 0 (worst) to 10 (best). Unfortunately, the rating system isn’t complete yet for many food items so, for example, environmental and labor data aren’t included for fruit.  This means that organic nectarines score higher (at 10) than fresh conventional nectarines (8.4) but Fair Trade bananas and coffee aren’t even listed. The search function works well, but the huge number of products makes it tedious to track down items while you’re in the store elbowing your way among other shoppers. Furthermore, because the Good Guide is so specific in it selecting individual products (it has separate listings for Seventh Generation’s Grape fruit and lemon dishwasher gels), there are a large number of items for which you won’t find listings.  All in all, this app is more useful to browse through while at home than to try to grab quick appraisals on the fly.

Unique among these apps, Good Guide lets you create a user profile where you can store a lists of favorite products and products to avoid.  However, it provides no local information or mapping, which means that you’ll still have to hunt down on your own where to find the best-rated items. And though there are bar code scanner programs out available for the iPhone, none sync up yet with Good Guide’s databases. But you can forgive these weaknesses in a free app and hope for improvements to come.

Whole Foods Markets (free)

If you’re a fan of Whole Foods Markets, they have created their own recipe app which allows you to find foods by diet type (low-sodium, gluten-free, sugar-conscious, etc.), the type of meal you’re planning (quick and easy, budget, entertaining, etc.) and the course. It’s handy to be able to look up foods for these specialty diets, but Epicurious and other recipe apps handle similar sorts of information. Still, many of the recipes—such as home-made peach-mango popsicles—look appetizing and can be saved to a favorites list. Happily, the branding isn’t too obtrusive either (though it does map all Whole Foods stores in your area), so this app has its uses.

Shopper ($.99)
I had the most fun with this application even though it told me nothing about finding local, healthy foods. The point behind shopper is to create shopping lists for different stores, allowing you to keep track of what you need and how much you will spend at each. Unlike most of the other apps here, this is one I can use at the store just like a shopping list.  However, the user has to be willing do some data entry via the iPhone touch screen pad—not the quickest way to note that bananas cost 89 cents per pound.  Over time and with some patience, I’m sure I could type in most of the products I get on any given shopping trip. Unfortunately, my local stores change their prices so frequently, that I suspect the totals will essentially become estimates from the moment they’re entered. That said, Shopper is very simple to navigate and because it can be so easily customized will be useful for the varied needs of most consumers. Not surprisingly, it’s quite popular.

Photo Credit: Paul McRandle
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Posted: Jun 23, 2009 12:20pm


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