A New Kind of Marketplace

A New Kind of Marketplace

Our local food community is ripe to join the food swap movement, where folks trade homemade goods with each other.

Barter birthed the marketplace. In simple terms, barter is the direct and mutual exchange of goods and/or services between two parties. The Latin term quid pro quo, “something for something,” is the original definition of barter.

Bartering or swapping food is nothing new—ancient Babylonian homemakers probably traded olive oil for beans. In modern times, bartering has mostly been associated with poverty. During the Great Depression, the agricultural economy got so bad that many farmers were forced to trade their crops and other goods to people in town that they owed; think of the country doctor paid with eggs.

Over the past hundred years or so, a combination of the ready access to money and the growth of financial tools and resources has relegated barter to the marketplace minor leagues. But in certain cities, where artisanal food buffs have become as ubiquitous as Uber drivers, our lingering economic doldrums have combined with a do-it-yourself fervor to fuel any number of edible barter deals.

Barter is primarily conducted between businesses that know each other and have a mutual need for what the other offers. Farmers and producers and chefs—in almost any local food system—all seem to know one another. This can be attributed, somewhat, to the relatively small size of their community. But it is also due, in no small part, to the nature of that community. They are creative geniuses and generous souls and the queens and kings of collaboration. (Have you ever peeked in a thrumming kitchen on a night when the restaurant is packed, or been on a farm when everyone in the family is harvesting, prepping, packing, and schlepping a perfectly cold-chain-maintained load of product to a farmers’ market?)

A Casual System
While farmers today may not be experiencing a Depression-era economy, more and more of them are organizing food swaps, a sort of farmers’ market that operates on the barter system. It allows a farmer to diversify her/his own pantry while socializing with peers and friends.

Though our region has yet to develop a formal food swap, hang around the farm shed at Findlay Market or the Hyde Park Farmers’ Market near closing time on any given weekend (especially during peak season), and you’re likely to see many of the producers and food artisans casually swapping a jar of honey for a pound of fingerling potatoes, or a couple of bars of lavender soap for a sack of heirloom tomatoes.

Last summer, after experiencing fungal problems with his own crop of garlic, Richard Stewart of Carriage House Farm in North Bend turned to Jim Lowenburg from Running Creek Farm in Mt. Healthy for some of Lowenburg’s many varieties of garlic. Lowenburg was happy to take home some fresh greens and honey, and Stewart got the garlic he needed for infusing in his new line-up of MadHouse Vinegars.

In addition to Carriage House, Lowenburg swaps potatoes, produce, and flowers for bread (he has a particular fondness for the 10-grain sourdough loaf) from Blue Oven Bakery, and with the Organic Farm at Bear Creek for some of their homemade sauces and jams. Breweries get in on the action, too; any number of local farmers and food artisans happily swap pumpkins and chocolate and basil for a growler or two of craft beer from MadTree and Rhinegeist.

The Food Swap Movement
While Lowenburg, Stewart, and other local folks are engaged in this informal system of trading, a more structured food swapping movement is gaining steam elsewhere. And a few key women have taken the lead in organizing and hosting food swap events. These ladies have spread the swap love across the U.S., Canada, and abroad by guiding others interested in hosting swaps, describing food swapping to the media, and building communities around sharing food.
Kate Payne is the blogger and author behind the books The Hip Girl’s Guide to Homemaking (HarperCollins, 2011) and The Hip Girl’s Guide to the Kitchen (HarperCollins, 2014). She cofounded the modern food swapping movement with Megan Paska in Brooklyn, NY, with the advent of BK Swappers in March of 2010. She now lives in Austin, TX, and hosts food swaps and invites friends to participate in home canning projects.

Bethany Rydmark is a landscape architect and an eighth generation Oregonian with an appetite for equitable, sustainable, and meaningful food. After finding her cupboards overloaded with culinary experiments gone right, she cofounded Portland’s first food swap in 2010 as a way to diversify her pantry and mingle with neighbors. “At a food swap you get to show off your toothsome creations, stock your pantry, and get some inspiration—all while meeting other like-minded individuals,” she says. “What’s not to love about that?”

Here’s how these swaps work: Participants must be individuals trading goods that they made or grew themselves. Some examples of popular food swap items include jams, pickles, salsa or relishes, baked goods, granola, spice mixes, pasta, vegetables, or herbs. Participants often bring samples for tasting.

First, swappers set up with their wares, keeping in mind that people will want to examine their goods, so they package them accordingly. Swappers bring a swap card for each different item that they intend to swap. For example, if you bring five jars of strawberry jam and three jars of dilly beans, you would fill out two swap cards: one for the jam and one for beans. The swap card lists what the item is, the ingredients it contains (being mindful of food allergies), and suggested uses, if applicable.

After the items are set up, everybody circulates around the room. Interested parties offer bids on the swap cards for each item, but these are just a way to open discussion. The first 45 minutes or so is spent circulating and making offers on swap cards, and then the actual swapping begins.
In March 2017, the second Chicago Food Swap took place at the Community Cooking School at the Broadway Armory Fieldhouse. Emily Paster, one of the organizers of the swap, said swapping turned out to be invigorating, even inspirational, for many of the people who participated.

Fueled by social media and a seemingly endless interest in urban agriculture, the edible exchange seems like a natural fit for local food fanciers. Many swappers enjoy the low-key, cash-free nature of the homey food swap. “When you make a batch of pickles, jam, or the like, you often end up with excess that you’d feel comfortable letting go of for the sake of keeping your pantry interesting,” Paster says. “For a few of those excess jars, you end up getting fresh, handcrafted foods for virtually no cost.”

Groups inspired by BK Swappers now meet in at least a half-dozen other cities, including Austin, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Portland, OR. Since no money changes hands, such meet-ups aren’t subject to health department scrutiny, and concerns about food safety at the swaps are rare.

A Call to Organize
In his landmark 1776 book Wealth of Nations, economist Adam Smith called money one of humankind’s three great inventions, along with the written word and mathematics. Money has helped businesses grow more efficiently, markets expand more dynamically, and nations trade more effectively.

But there is something about a food-swap kind of setting that feels like a truly underground experience; it's a great way to network with like-minded people and create community without any money changing hands. Part silent auction, part village marketplace, and part fun-loving open house, at a food swap your homegrown or homemade creations become your own personal currency.

Hopefully it’s only a matter of time before some of our own local farmers, gardeners, and food artisans organize more formal swaps. There are already some pretty obvious places for this to happen: Last year at the Fall Flavors event at the Civic Garden Center of Greater Cincinnati, local community gardeners swapped some of their bounty with one another. Gardeners from Walnut Hills brought some homegrown basil, Japanese eggplant, and late-season tomatoes from their garden, which they exchanged for broccoli, squash, and yellow cherry tomatoes from community gardens in Northside and Over-the-Rhine.

Findlay Kitchen is humming with local food artisans turning out everything from gluten-free crackers to hot sauce to donuts. Maybe some of these enterprising folks will decide to swap their goods more formally. Or maybe someone will follow the example of those young women in Brooklyn and organize a food swap out of their home.

It’s hard to think of a better way to diversify your pantry and rub shoulders with friends and neighbors.

A native of a rural farming community in northwest Ohio, Karen has spent more than 30 years writing grants and begging for money for a variety of good causes in southwest Ohio. She is currently at work on a sitcom about the crazy cast of characters one finds at a popular urban public market in the Midwest. She’ll work for pie or a good pot of soup.