Students work with community to create Eat Local VT, new app for sourcing local foods

By Acadia Klepeis

Courtesy Photo
The team that developed the app consisted of nine team members of various academic backgrounds.

Nine Middlebury students created Eat Local VT, an app that connects users to local food sources, in partnership with Addison County Relocalization Network (ACORN), a local nonprofit that works to strengthen the local food and farm network around the Champlain region. 

“The app was something that I wanted to make for years, but we’d just never had the time or the money,” ACORN Director Lindsay Berk said. She noted that with the added impetus of the pandemic, “the timing was right.” 

ACORN releases an annual guide that provides information about products and services offered by over 200 farms and food producers in the region. Published in collaboration with The Addison Independent, the directory typically appears in print.  

The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, however, forced ACORN to cancel its scheduled print publication of its 2020 guide. Instead, ACORN put out the call for volunteers interested in helping to create an online version of their print guide.

“Covid really helped people appreciate local food,” Berk said. ACORN was determined to meet this surge in interest and find a way to help the community continue to access its resources.

After a 10-month-long effort, the free app was released to the public in early February and has already been downloaded over 550 times. Users can search for specific products like “maple” or “dairy” and filter the map by options like “organic,” “order ahead” or “pick your own.” Results include a link to the food producer’s website as well as contact information and more details about their offerings. 

“Everybody should be able to use the app,” app developer Manuel Morillo ’23 said. “We made it for everyone.”

ACORN reached out to the Innovation Hub and the Computer Science Department back in the spring. Ben Yamron ’21 and Zack Einhorn ’21 seized the opportunity and formed a core group of four students to work on the app. 

In addition to coding and more technical work, the group of students collected data from farmers, presented the app to their eventual sponsor, Co-operative Insurance, and completed beta testing to compile feedback from potential users.

The app’s target customers include local residents, tourists, college students and “anybody who’s curious about local food,” Berk said. With over 250 food producers in the region, the app provides an easy way to navigate the variety of available options. 

“It’s a great resource for community members who want to buy their food from someone that they know or someone that lives near them so they know where the food is coming from,” Einhorn said. 

The public response in the few short weeks since release has been overwhelmingly positive.  “It’s helping bring ACORN into the 21st century,” Berk said.

The group of students who worked on the app together have since decided to continue their work through MiddDev, a prospective club where students can hone their programming skills through hands-on experiences. The club will be formed through  a partnership with the Innovation Hub. 

 “We built the club with the intention of continuing with this project and making more projects so that even more students can learn from helping others,” Einhorn said.

“Because this is a volunteer project, it’s mostly going to be run off of self-motivation,”  Aska Matsuda ’22 said. 

In the coming months, MiddDev is hoping to expand its membership. As Matsuda explained, apps require more than just STEM expertise — such as art and design skills to create icons. “If you’re interested, we encourage you to get involved,” Morillo said.  

Eat Local VT’s next goal is to create a desktop version of the app. The mobile app will also continue to be updated to be as current and user-friendly as possible.