In the last few years there has been a growing food swap movement across North America and Europe. For people who love to cook, bake, forage, and garden, food swaps provide an opportunity to make and try new delicacies and build community.
More and more people are now growing their own food due to concerns about food safety and sustainability and a desire to eat locally and seasonally. Home cooks are foraging wild foods and making the kinds of foods that they previously bought — including condiments, baked goods, drink syrups, candies, yogurt and cheese, and charcuterie.
The food swap movement is the natural outgrowth of this do-it-yourself kitchen revolution. Enthusiastic canners who find themselves with more jam than they can possibly eat trade their creations with gardeners who are inundated with zucchini and tomatoes. Those who raise backyard chickens can swap their eggs for homemade bread from a passionate baker.
At a food swap, home cooks and gardeners meet to trade their homemade and homegrown items. The only requirement for food items is that they must be made, grown or foraged by the swapper. No money changes hands and no one is obligated to trade with anyone else. All trades are negotiated by the swappers themselves. For the participants, a food swap is an opportunity to showcase their cooking and gardening talents, to diversify their pantries, to meet like-minded people in their communities and to be inspired.
Food swaps are typically organized on social networking websites and on blogs, but because the swaps themselves are in-person events, they create a sense of community and spark new relationships. For the participants, the swaps provide a reason to try new recipes and expand their culinary repertoire. Everyone likes to receive recognition for their hard work and cooks and gardeners are no exception. At a food swap, the gardener or cook who has been honing his or her craft finally gets a chance to impress a wider audience.
The food swap movement appeals to a diverse group of people, ranging from young urban food enthusiasts to suburban and rural gardeners, homesteaders and food preservationists. The offerings at a food swap are often as diverse as the participants. Gardeners bring their baby kale, their tomatoes, and their hot peppers. Bakers bring loaves of foccacia and challah, beautiful cupcakes, macarons and whoopee pies. Dairy products are represented in the forms of homemade yogurt, butter and cheese. Candy-makers bring fudge, truffles, caramels, and marshmallows. Those with a love of home food preservation bring their jams, marmalades, pickles and chutneys. Cooks looking to stock their pantries will find homemade extracts, spice mixes and a wide variety of condiments. Drink syrups and infused liquors have also proved to be popular swap items. Food swappers are passionate about what they do and they have high standards. Their offerings are inventive, unusual and often beautifully packaged.
The current food swap movement began in 2010 in Brooklyn. Kate Payne, of the popular blog and book The Hip Girl’s Guide to Homemaking, and Megan Paska, the founder of Brooklyn Honey, wanted to trade food with one another and were inspired to get their friends together for a group swap. Thus, BK Swappers was born. Since that time, the food swap movement has spread all over the country, and even to Canada, Europe, South America and New Zealand. There is now a Food Swap Network devoted to helping people find swaps in their area or to encourage them to start one if none exists.
In 2011, after reading a story about the Philadelphia food swap and discovering that no such event existed in my city, I approached my neighbor, Vanessa Druckman about bringing the food swap trend to Chicago. As food bloggers, we wanted to meet other people who are as passionate about food as we are. We started small with only a dozen swappers at our first event in December 2011, but now the Chicago Food Swap is a robust community of hundreds of devoted swappers. Swaps with sixty, seventy and even eighty available spots fill up in a matter of days with a mix of returning regulars and new participants. Local businesses, including cooking schools and boutiques, line up for the chance to host swaps. In between events, the swappers continue their conversations about food, recipes and do-it-yourself kitchen projects through social media outlets such as Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram.
Food swaps follow a similar format. Swappers arrive and set up their offerings. Everyone fills out a swap card for each different item that they bring listing its ingredients and suggested uses. The first half hour is spent mingling and checking out the different offerings. If a swapper sees something interesting, he or she suggests a trade on the swap card for that item, but it is not binding. After thirty minutes, the actual swapping begins. All swaps are negotiated individually and no one is obligated to swap with anyone else. Luckily, it usually works out so that everyone goes home happy with their arms full of delicious food.
You certainly don’t have to be a gourmet cook to participate in a food swap. As long as you can make one delicious thing worth trading, you will be very welcome. As summer approaches, a food swap is also a great way for gardeners to get some value for their homegrown fruits, vegetables and herbs. The truth is, a food swap is all about building community and forging connections through food. You will find food swappers to be a warm and welcoming group.
Emily Paster is a freelance writer and mother of two living in the Chicago suburbs. She writes about fitting ambitious food into family life on her blog, West of the Loop. She co-founded the Chicago Food Swap in 2011.