How to: Food swapping

Green Lifestyle magazine

What do you do when you have excess produce you can’t eat? Swap it of course, as these many community groups do!

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Food swaps are growing in popularity around Australia. They are usually held once a month and bring people together to swap excess home-grown produce or other garden related goods. People who attend swaps may have
over-abundant fruit trees, a vegetable glut, be avid seed propagators with more seedlings than they haveroom to plant or may just want to share conversation with others from the local community.

Swaps are a non-monetary exchange where people bring their own produce and take home someone else’s. They also help to reduce local food wastage. This small act can have a big impact. It is estimated in NSW alone 1.1 tonnes of food are wasted each year. In my experience people tend to value home produce as they know the story behind it and the effort that has gone into producing it and so it is less likely to be wasted.

Claire Hetzel from Kildonan Uniting Care’s Pepper Tree Place Community Garden says people bring not only the “zucchinis that get away in summer, silverbeet you can’t bring yourself to eat one more time, they actually often bring their most special produce – honeycomb dripping with honey, preserves.” She says the “beauty of swaps is creating a market stall not about money, it’s about celebrating skills people have learnt or are leaning.”
Local produce is as fresh as you can get. It has less food miles – in fact it may only have food metres! Less food miles mean less fossil fuel is used to transport and store the produce so it is better overall for the environment. And of course it usually tastes better too!

Setting up a food swap

Food swaps are generally volunteer-run, or may receive support from a local community service that can provide a location and some promotion. Most food swaps are held in a park or a community garden and may coincide with other monthly events such as a market.

Glenda Lindsay, who has run Fitzroy Urban Harvest swap for the past five years, recommends a location with lots of incidental foot traffic so passers-by can be enticed. It needs to be easily accessible, and it is desirable to have some shelter from the weather. Colourful flags and chalk messages on nearby footpaths also help to attract attention on the day. Try a local letterbox drop, social media and an email group for reminders of the swap dates and to help to spread the word. The people from Pepper Tree Place food swap began by taking a trolley full of fresh food to the local pedestrian mall to let the local community know about the food swap.

What can be swapped?

Some swaps limit what can be exchanged to produce fresh from the garden such as vegetables, eggs, honey, seeds, preserves and worm farm fertiliser. Others take a more liberal approach and anything can be swapped – even language lessons or recipes.

It is a good idea to check with your local council regarding any food safety regulations but because swaps are a non-monetary exchange regulations often do not apply. Encourage people to label cooked food with the ingredients and date made (to cater for people with special dietary needs and to ensure the freshness of the food). Fitzroy Urban Harvest records who brings what to each swap so people can ask the right person what things are, how they are used and where/how they were grown. People are then able to make a responsible decision as to whether they want to take a particular item.

If you don’t have your own garden you may like to be involved by making preserves. One lady at the Fitzroy swap takes produce home and makes it into preserves to bring to the next swap, while others bring clean screwtop jars or volunteer to assist with running of the swap. This way anyone can be involved – providing access to affordable nutritious food and encouraging community participation are the most important parts.
How does everyone get a fair share?

If there’s no money involved how does everyone get a fair share? There are no hard and fast rules, but swappers are expected to be mindful of what is a fair exchange. Eggs and honey have a higher value than seeds or a recipe, for example, while fruit for vegetables is an equal exchange, but there are no definite rules about weighing produce or what is a fair swap. This is one of the beautiful thing about swaps – they are purely an honesty system.

Glenda says, “the lovely thing about the swaps and gardening in general is that plants grow several things you can eat and also produce seeds – it’s that multiplying effect of generosity and I think that’s very much the ethos of the swap as well.” In fact at most swaps people tend give more than they take, they enjoy the community participation, the sharing and the excitement of home-grown produce.

Improving food security

Food insecurity is a term used to describe difficultly accessing food, insufficient supply and the inappropriate use of food, such as not being able to find foods that are important to your food culture. Some of the causes include not having resources to buy food, geographical location or a lack of knowledge and motivation about nutritious food. It is estimated in Australia five per cent of people suffer from food insecurity.

Merri Community Health Service and Kildonan Uniting Care initiated the Pepper Tree Place food swap to address local food security issues. Swaps contribute to improving food security, especially for people who may not always be able to buy fresh produce, by providing access to fresh healthy food in a non-monetary system that is locally accessible. Swaps also act as a forum which encourages people to learn about growing and eating a diversity of foods.

Bryony, a volunteer at Pepper Tree Place, explained that when people bring unusual food that others might not be familiar with, they like to provide a taster such as for the very productive pepino – a relative of the tomato that is said to taste like a mix of honeydew melon and cucumber. Last swap someone took on the challenge of a big bag of loquats to make into jam. “People try new things, they feel happy to experiment,” she says.

Glenda tells the tale of a Melbourne local who has a macadamia tree which produces 16 kg of macadamias a year. “It’s amazing what will grow in different microclimates that you wouldn’t expect to see growing locally… this is valuable in terms of local food resilience as it shows people the diversity of food plants that are possible.” Food reliance means a community is less likely to experience food insecurity.

The swapping of knowledge and conversation is perhaps one of the most valuable aspects of a food swap – people learn to garden, share ideas and try new things. They create a reason for people of all different background and ages to talk to each other. Food swaps are another way to help a sustainable community grow.