Food Swaps: Kitchen-to-Kitchen Community Building
In an effort to be not only food consumers but also producers, more and more people nationwide are embracing backyard homesteading. However, one of the unexpected consequences of turning a lawn into a garden, keeping chickens or putting up preserves can be overabundance: Hobby farmers often find themselves with more food than they can or care to consume.
Rather than anonymously leaving piles of zucchini on someone's porch or overwhelming co-workers with yet another jar of pickles, many have turned to food swaps, local gatherings where they can trade their homegrown, homemade or foraged food with their neighbors.
Hailed as one of the hottest food trends of 2011, food swapping continues to grow in popularity across the country. The Food Swap Network (FoodSwapNetwork.com), an online clearinghouse of food swapping resources, lists active swap groups in 37 states, from Hawaii to Maine, as well as many more throughout Canada and Europe.
Although trendy, food swapping is not new. No doubt many an early Vermonter agreed to swap services for food in lieu of currency or shared excess harvest with a neighbor. But modern-day food swapping was born not of necessity but rather the desire to create a community of those who love all things handcrafted and yearn for a more personal connection to their food.
Thus, you don't have to grow or raise your own food to swap. Swapping has become wildly popular with those who engage in what author Emily Matchar calls "the new domesticity – the fascination with reviving 'lost' domestic arts like canning, bread-baking, knitting and chicken- raising." Established swap groups such as Brooklyn's BK Swappers and upstate New York's From Scratch Club are setting a high standard. Their typical monthly swaps include a diverse array of homemade artisanal foods: infused vinegars, cheese, baked goods, beer, savory jams and during the growing season, armfuls of fresh heirloom vegetables, fruits and herbs. The trend has expanded to incorporate other handmade items as well, such as soap, lotions and lip balm.
Given the widespread popularity of food swaps, it is surprising that here in Vermont, where we brag about our number-one position on the national locavore index and advocate staunchly for the farmto-table movement, there is little organized swapping.
It certainly surprised Sara Whitehair of Waterbury who, after attending one of the From Scratch Club's swaps, decided to form her own regional food-swapping group, the Vermont Food Swap.
"I couldn't believe Vermont wasn't all over swapping. It seems like such a 'Vermonty' thing to do," said Whitehair. "I thought, 'I need to make this happen.'"
Using tips from the Food Swap Network and the From Scratch Club, Whitehair organized the first event for the new Vermont swap group last October. While the turnout was small, she was undaunted. "It was actually great that our group was small the first time. We all got each other's items simply because there were so few of us."
She also noted that for people unfamiliar with swapping, a small group or a single theme can make swapping seem less intimidating. For example, she recently helped the Mad River Localvores group organize a soup-only exchange to introduce their members to the concept of swapping.
As word of the high quality of the foods and the fun atmosphere of these swaps spread via the group's Facebook page, interest and participation in subsequent swaps has increased. At the Vermont Food Swap's April event, held on a Sunday afternoon in the basement of a Waterbury church, the group of swappers had grown to include home cooks, food professionals, gardeners, swap-curious first-timers and even one young chicken-raiser.
The wares at the April swap were as varied as the ages and backgrounds of the participants: There were not only the expected preserved foods, such as jam and honey, but also fresh items (eggs, Jerusalem artichokes) and prepared foods (tamale pie, bread, soup). The assortment was rounded out by some more unusual offerings as well: locally grown hops, organic soap and citrus-maple cocktail sour mix.
The swap began with a "sampling hour," in which swappers moved from table to table to taste the products, meet fellow participants and sign swap cards indicating their desire to trade. After sampling, the official swap period began. Personality styles were clearly evident: Some preferred to stand by their display and wait to be approached with a trade while others immediately sought out the offerer of their firstchoice item. Before long, the swapping was complete, new friendships had been established and everyone left with a box full of interesting food.
"Swaps are a fun way to get ideas and inspiration," Whitehair observed. "It's all about meeting new people and learning about new foods. Food really brings people together."
And it is that togetherness, that sense of building a food-based community, that keeps swappers coming back for more. In the case of the Waterbury group, the swap is now a monthly event, to which Whitehair hopes to continue to attract more swappers.
"Make what you can, come and meet new people and bring home some really good food. Once you go to a swap, you'll be hooked," she added enthusiastically.
Food swapping is the local-first movement at its most fundamental: Participants of any skill level or means come together as a community to forge a personal relationship with both local food and the people who make it. And what could be more "Vermonty" than that?
TIPS FOR ATTENDING A FOOD SWAP
Following these helpful tips will make your swap experience more fun and rewarding:
• You get what you give: The more items you bring to swap, the more you'll take home.
• Exchanges are one-for-one, so be sure your items are sized accordingly: a loaf of bread, a pint of jam, a quart of soup, a dozen eggs.
• Don't forget the presentation: Just as in a retail store, attractive packaging and marketing help you "sell" your wares. Swaps offer the added opportunity to get creative with your packaging, labeling and tablescapes.
• Provide detailed ingredient lists: Other swappers may be unable to eat certain ingredients or be observing a special diet.
• Offer samples: Everyone wants to know what they're getting, so tasting is important. Don't forget to bring sampling tools (chips, crackers, forks, toothpicks, etc.).
• Be swap-curious: If you're feeling intimidated, try first attending a swap only as an observer.