Food Swaps Are Catching On: Make, Trade, Feast

Swapping is sweeping the nation. Make enough for many, and then reap the rewards.

Canned goods are favorite items people make for food swaps, but they also bring homemade breads, beer, soups, spreads, and sauces. (Tammy Ljungblad/Kansas City Star/MCT via Getty Images)
Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

When Jane Lerner opens her refrigerator, she sees things like watermelon jelly, coconut hot sauce, and preserved lemons. They’re not exactly your run-of-the-mill condiments, but Lerner says she loves the variety they add to her home cooking. These are the kinds of things the 41-year-old brings home every other month from the food swap she runs in Brooklyn, dubbed BK Swappers. Lerner says that every time she spreads the peach preserves on a piece of homemade bread, she thinks about the person who made each item.

“There’s something so fantastic about the pride they take in the thing that they made and the things they received in kind,” she says.

Named by Grist.com as one of the top food trends of 2011, a food swap, as defined by FoodSwapNetwork.com, is “a recurring event where members of a community share homemade, homegrown, or foraged foods with each other.”

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BK Swappers was founded in 2010 by Megan Paska and Kate Payne. Helped by a strong social media presence and a 2011 profile in The New York Times, the group grew quickly and became the model for a crop of swaps that have popped up from coast to coast since. (Click here to find one near you.) The trend grew so quickly that Payne, who wrote a book called Hip Girl’s Guide to Homemaking and runs a blog by the same name, left BK Swappers in the Fall of 2011 to found the online food swap directory and information resource, FoodSwapNetwork.com. Lerner, a writer herself who had been a regular at BK Swappers, took the helm at the Brooklyn swap, which regularly draws around 40 people.

She insists they are not really doing anything new; humans have been trading homemade food with each other since ancient times. What BK Swappers did was give swapping a 21st-century makeover.

“What we did was connect [swapping] to a new food, artisanal, DIY, food movement,” she says. “Social media was a factor as well. We basically organized the whole thing on Twitter. It is an old-fashioned idea and we were connecting it to all these new fangled ideas.”

Start to finish, swaps usually last about two hours. (Lerner says Brooklyn swaps go three, but the first hour or more is spent socializing and enjoying the free beer she provides.) Most follow a similar format: In the first 30 minutes, swappers arrive, sign in, fill out name tags and swap sheets and set up their wares on the tables. Many swappers will bring foods they’ve canned or baked at home, but more offbeat items—like kimchi or kombucha—make their way into the swaps from time to time.

“I’ve lost my ability to judge what’s weird in food because I’ve been exposed to so many cool things the last few years,” Lerner says.

Swappers then take the next 30 minutes to one hour to walk around the room, examining and sampling the items that others brought. When they taste something they’d like to take home, they write their names on a swap sheet in front of the item. The final 30 minutes are a furious scramble to find those who indicated they want what you brought and present them an offer they can’t refuse. These interactions, which often result in a successful trade and occasionally do not, always deepen the bond between swappers.

“What we’re doing on the ground level is bringing people together around food,” she says.

What homemade culinary creation would you bring to a food swap?

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