Food Swapping: A New (Old) Trend
WORDS BY STEVE HOLT / PHOTOGRAPHS BY ADAM DETOUR
Back in January, when the experts were making their predictions for 2012, Grist.org food editor Twilight Greenaway named food swapping as one of the sustainable food trends to watch this year. “If you managed to stay clear of the swapping frenzy that was 2011,” she wrote, “it was probably on purpose.”
An exaggeration, of course, but her point is well taken: Food swaps were everywhere in 2011. In the same way community-supported agriculture blew up nationwide a few years earlier, the last year has been big for food swaps across the country, with a huge number of the 33 or so swaps getting started or growing considerably. Coming up on its first birthday, the Boston Food Swap is among those that started and succeeded in 2011.
Inspired by the BK Swappers out of Brooklyn (which only got its start in 2010), Lyn Huckabee, Tara Bellucci and Susan Johnston first invited a few friends to come together to swap food in June 2011. In April, Johnston, a freelance lifestyle writer, had read a New York Times article about the Brooklyn swap and forwarded it to the others, whom she’d met while organizing a pot-luck dinner club a few years earlier. The concept of a food swap—which is, according to FoodSwapNetwork.com, “a recurring event where members of a community share homemade, homegrown or foraged foods with each other”—immediately resonated with Huckabee, a lawyer in the energy sector who had recently joined a CSA and started canning.
“We never set out and said, ‘We want to have a swap where 100 people come every month,’” said Huckabee, who was surprised to see more than just the three friends in attendance that first swap. “We did it for us. It just sort of blossomed from there.”
Observing a Swap
I became interested in learning more about food swapping for personal reasons. My wife and I have been splitting a produce share in a CSA for several years, and up until last summer we had been doing a pretty good job of using up most of the food each week. What changed was that 2011 was our first full summer with our newly adopted 4-year-old. Life with a child afforded us less time to come up with creative recipes that utilize the more unusual produce we were getting, not to mention the much less sophisticated palate of a 4-year-old. While we’re thrilled at his appreciation of several vegetables—including broccoli, Brussels sprouts and squash—it became increasingly hard to find a weekly use for things like kale and bok choy. Thus, we began to feel bad for the bags of produce that would sit unused in our crisper until the next share was delivered.
In my estimation, eating unsustainably is bad enough, but throwing away food is worse. Given our time constraints and picky little mouth, we had two choices, it seemed: cut our losses and quit the CSA, or continue receiving the shares and find a home for our excess veggies. It was late summer—when we were really starting to feel bad for our food waste—that I heard about food swapping, and more specifically the Boston Food Swap. I had to check it out.
The first swap I could attend was November’s, much too late to participate in any meaningful way with our excess CSA produce. But, as I would find out, swaps feature an array of foods, from preserves to pesto, bread to beer. Swappers are finishing up laying out their wares when I show up at Space with a Soul, the two-floor nonprofit incubator near Fort Point where Boston Food Swap rents space for its events. With plenty of light streaming in over the exposed beams and bricks and expansive views of Boston and its harbor, the aesthetic at the swap is ideal for the local, artisanal feel organizers are going for.
This is a welcoming, inclusive group and despite the absence of even a single male swapper this particular Sunday, the organizers insist that past swaps have featured their fair share of men. The monthly swaps now draw an average attendance of 30, and interest appears to be increasing. While a few stalwart swappers have been attending since the beginning, each event attracts a handful of new ones, many of whom found out about it from a friend or by searching the Web.
Here’s how the swap works:
Attendees bring a good-sized portion of something they made or foraged specifically for the swap—either all the same or a variety of items. They are each given a small space on a long table, where they neatly arrange their offerings, in front of which they place a plate of samples and a card describing their product. Melissa Pocek, who is laying out loaves of pumpkin bread, says she had a “bit of a disaster” when several of the colorful tins turned over on her bike ride from Brookline. It’s her first swap, though, and she’ll no doubt apply the lesson next time.
A chunk of time is then spent browsing and sampling the various items, often discussing with their creators their recipes and processes. Swappers are now taking careful mental notes of the items—a particular jam or spread or cookie, for instance—that they want most to go home with. Today, much of the buzz seems to be circulating around Sarah Thibodeaux’s habanero pepper jelly and Michelle Wang’s three flavors of Madeline cookies. There’s also a fair amount of interest in Lyn Huckabee’s apple butter, Susan Johnston’s French vanilla and Nutella cake pops, and Li Theng’s Pandan coconut custard.
When the go-ahead is given, swappers spend 20 minutes silently signing their names on sheets of paper in front of each item indicating their desire to swap for the item. (This is not unlike a silent auction.) Offers are written down—a container of squash soup for a jar of pesto, for instance—which, when swapping begins, will be accepted, rejected or negotiated. Spirits are high during the swap, as is the energy in the room. Wang carries around a wicker basket with a handle to collect the items she receives in exchange for her Madelines. Others stash their bounty under tables or against walls. There’s some amount of clamoring to secure limited quantities of a few of the more popular items, but if anyone is disappointed by not swapping for something they wanted, they hide it well. I overhear Huckabee pleading with Li to accept a jar of her apple butter in exchange for Theng’s coconut custard.
“Is there any way I can convince you?” Huckabee asks. “We put it on chicken, bread, cheese…”
In the end, Li is swayed, and a swap is made.
Person after person tells me of the social benefits of these swaps. Pocek points out how she routinely walks past young professionals in Boston who may have a similar interest in food, and the food swap is a way a few of them can be introduced.
It was Internet buzz around food swaps that helped Wang and her friend Li Theng find their way to the November swap. Li, who hails from Singapore and is here with her husband, a graduate student at MIT, says she discovered Boston Food Swap after searching for food-related events on the Internet. “It’s good to see the food culture here is really strong,” Li said.
The co-founders say the surprising foods people bring is one of the reasons they do the swaps. Recent examples include jalapeño cheddar bread, smoked mozzarella and a lime marmalade, which almost everyone says was the best item yet. “The guy who brought [the marmalade] was very, very popular,” Huckabee says.
There have been some pretty offbeat contributions as well. One woman brought in eggs from the ducks she raises on her property. A man brought chak chak, an Uzbek fried dough. Another man brought kombucha, a fermented black tea, and ended up swapping for more of the culture (Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast, or “SCOBY”) used to brew the tea.
“They were basically trading a glob of bacteria,” Huckabee says. “Overhearing that conversation was pretty weird.”
An Old Trend on the Rise
Food swapping is a “re-emergent” phenomenon that is enjoying a renaissance in a subculture fascinated with DIY, says Alfonso Morales, associate professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Wisconsin. Morales, a leading thinker on the role of public marketplaces in society, says that in contemporary society the oft-idealized self-contained farm is neither practical or desirable. Instead, doing one thing well and trading with someone who does another thing well is a better option.
“It’s an experiment, and people are trying out all kinds of things our ancestors would recognize, but suited to our contemporary social, technological and political circumstances,” he says.
Culturally, swapping (or bartering) falls into the same vein as other “collaborative consumption” activities that promote resilience and interdependence, such as car sharing, time dollars, Slow Food and Slow Money. Swap.com, with whom Boston Food Swap partnered for a charity cookie swap in December, is an online marketplace where people can “turn what you have into what you want.” Locally, other groups gather to trade soup (South End Soup Swap) and even yogurt (Somerville Yogurt Co-Op). One local website, mafoodtrader.org, serves as a virtual broker allowing someone with unfiltered honey to trade for cilantro-infused gin. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that a number of these things have popularized in the wake of the economic downturn of the last few years.
“It breeds a little more self-reliance,” says Bellucci, a writer, of food swapping. “Since people can’t control the financial markets, it’s at least nice to control that you have jams in the fridge.”
Nationally, a handful of food swaps have drawn the scrutiny of public health departments because of the fact that on the surface, they can appear to be a non-permitted market or restaurant. But as it stands now, Boston Food Swap is merely brokering trades between consenting members of the public, making it a non-retail venture. Johnston says they’ve taken the approach of engaging with the state Department of Health rather than operating covertly.
“We want to be transparent about it,” says Johnston, adding that there does seem to be some gray area on the issue. “We’re working with them to see if there are ways that we can do it within the framework of their guidelines.”
Bellucci says Boston Food Swap is currently working on securing its nonprofit status and raising funds “so we can keep it free for everyone.” She adds that they intend to ramp up a side mission of educating people about local food issues. It’s fair to say that in a culture dominated by genetic modification, cheap and convenient fast food and waste, Boston Food Swap is educating people simply by existing.
And though I am still an observer looking in, the swap may well keep us in our CSA—and stoke the fires of our culinary imagination—for yet another year.
Steve Holt, a regular contributor to Edible Boston, was anthologized in Best Food Writing 2011 for his story about healthy burger joints. Read more of his work at www.thebostonwriter.com and follow him on Twitter @thebostonwriter. He lives in East Boston.