Food Swaps: Sharing Goodies, Stocking Pantries, One Trade at a Time

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Food swappers checking out the chow at the East Bay Homemade Food Swap in Oakland on Saturday.
Food swappers checking out the chow at the East Bay Homemade Food Swap in Oakland on Saturday.

When in under two weeks The New York Times runs not just one but two stories on a food phenomenon popping up around the country it's clear there's a trend cooking (from scratch) in kitchens across the country.

The food swap is making a comeback. As Debbie Koenig notes in her Times story on an edible exchange in Brooklyn, there's nothing new about trading, say, currant scones for pickled beets. In the days when doctors made house calls, they sometimes received produce in lieu of payment for services rendered.

Food Swap Oakland flyerThese days, artisan D.I.Y.ers have added a modern, culinary spin to the food swap, which is gaining traction during the lingering economic downturn. The appeal: Discovering new foods, meeting fellow food lovers and stocking the pantry. While home-grown eggs, greens and herbs, along with handcrafted jams, breads and spreads are often in the mix, less common homemade fare like fava leaf pesto, basil liqueur and avocado pound cake may also be up for grabs.

On Saturday afternoon at the East Bay Homemade Food Swap 25 mostly female home cooks who hadn't bartered before descended on Kendra Poma's cozy Oakland bungalow and set up a small space showcasing their wares in anticipation of the silent-auction style swap.


The room was packed, the vibe friendly. A table in the back served as a tasting station, swappers wore name tags, and filled in paper slips describing their offerings. The presentation was impressive for a group of mostly self-taught cooks. A food swap feels like an affordable and accessible way to stock your pantry with both familiar and unusual foods, says Renee Avalos, a personal chef whose main client is filmmaker Deborah Koons Garcia (The Future of Food, Symphony of the Soil), echoing the sentiment of other attendees.

Host Kendra Poma makes an edible exchange at the food swap in her home last weekend.
Host Kendra Poma makes an edible exchange at the food swap in her home last weekend.

Poma, a seasoned clothes swapper who was inspired to hold her own edible exchange after watching a video on a Portland food swap, plans to hold seasonal meet ups; the next event is slated for July. Future swaps will be held in local businesses, which can accommodate a few more swappers, though Poma says about 25 to 30 participants feels about right. "I like to be able to greet each person as they walk in the door," says the 27-year-old.

Portland food swap in progress. Video courtesy of Cooking up a Story

For the first hour or so people milled about, chatting and checking out the chow. When Poma, who swapped peach-and-ginger kombucha, homegrown herbal teas and vegan boysenberry swirl chocolate cake, announced it was time to start making swaps, the room got really quiet as people focused on taking care of business, scribbling on the swap slips notes like "I'd like to trade my radish onion relish for a jar of your ginger pear butter." Once everyone had had a chance to make their swap choices known the actual trades took place. Informal, verbal requests for unclaimed items followed once written swaps had been honored. The idea, after all, is to go home with different foods.

An assortment of preserves, pickles, fermented foods, and baked goods for exchange at Saturdays food swap.
An assortment of preserves, pickles, fermented foods, and baked goods for exchange at Saturday's food swap.

Surprisingly, a lot of participants polled on the day said they opted to make something new -- be that blood orange marmalade or their mom's kick-arse kim chee -- rather than play it safe with a tried-and-true recipe. Some got ideas for what to bring next time: Drinking vinegars, in the case of Christina Stork, owner of the yarn store Article Pract, who makes fennel, orange, and pomegranate drops.

More savory and less sweets, for Keri Keifer of Grand Avenue Bakeshop, who felt a small sting of disappointment when one of her proposed swaps was declined. Alas, liqueur maker Andrea Bornschlegel was shying away from sweet treats. In the spirit of the event, though, she swung by at the end and offered Keifer a half full tasting bottle as a token, which Keifer happily accepted.

The youngest swapper, budding food entrepreneur Cameron Kaplan, 12, included a cardboard sign about her novelty concoctions on a stick she calls Lollicakes, a savvy strategy that endeared her to many in the crowd.

Fueled by social media and a seemingly endless interest in urban homesteading, the edible exchange seems like a natural fit for local food fanciers. While a couple of participants on Saturday had sold goods via the Underground Market, they enjoyed the low-key, cash-free nature of the homey food swap. "It's a great place for me to trade excess inventory or offer a small batch of something, like my green gage plum jam," explains Becky Spencer of Urban Preserves.

Since no money changes hands, such meet ups aren't subject to health department scrutiny, and nobody raised concerns about food safety at Saturday's gathering.

Poma ran a smoothly choreographed event, part edible exchange and part social mixer, that went off without a hitch in just under two hours. She advises anyone interested in holding their own swap to visit the PDX Swappers Facebook page and The Hip Girl's Guide to Homemaking for pointers.

Other local swaps include canner Karen Solomon's monthly organic baby food exchange and Simran Singh and Stacie Dong's family dinner swap, both hosted by 18 Reasons in San Francisco and Forage Oakland's occasional produce and preserve exchanges. Coming soon: Belly to Belly Bartermart, hosted by local chef Ellen Johnson, according to Twilight Greenaway in her Times story on the Bay Area's food swap culture.


Of course, home cooks have been swapping (or simply gifting) preserves, pickles, cakes, and cookies for years in an informal way. Formal swapping, though, adds something a little special to the exchange, explains Keifer, contently filling her backpack with a cornucopia of interesting eats she swapped for her candied peels and cardamom cookies.

"Whether it's Belgian beer, tomatillo sauce, or backyard eggs, you have a sense that someone has really nurtured whatever it is they're exchanging," she says. "Bartering in this kind of setting is a truly underground experience and a great way to network with like-minded people and create community without any money changing hands."