The food swap movement: reducing waste and building communities

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Food swaps minimise food waste and revive the personal connection between producer and consumer, writes Sarah Smith.

Local and seasonal have become buzzwords in the food industry. Restaurants, magazines and supermarkets are using consumer interest in eating well while minimising environmental impact to promote their products.

This rediscovery of local and seasonal foods has also seen the development of a modern food swap movement in parts of the USA and Europe. But the popularity of food swaps is about more than promoting fresh produce. These events are being used to bring together like-minded people, help prevent waste, and form the basis of building new communities.

If you’ve ever been faced with an overflowing bowl of courgettes, runner beans or apples picked from the garden, you’ll no doubt be familiar with the idea of sharing some of the harvest. Summer gluts are distributed among friends, family and neighbours; they appreciate the gift of fresh produce and you neatly sidestep the need to find an inventive way to cook yet another marrow. It was this desire to share home produced food beyond a circle of close associates that led to the setting up of food swaps. Reviving the idea of a barter system, the swaps encourage everyone to bring along their home grown, foraged or homemade food and trade them for the fresh and preserved produce brought by other swappers.

Food swaps began to gain a following in the USA about five years ago. The idea was spotted by Vicky Swift in Cheshire who set up a Facebook page to swap surplus produce with others living locally. It soon became apparent that the swapping would work much better if it was face to face, and Vicky organised the first Apples for Eggs food swap in Altrincham in 2011. The event was a success, and swaps were soon set up in other parts of the country under the Apples for Eggs banner. The key thing about all of these food swaps is that everything is home produced, encouraging sharing of surplus food and making a direct link between the producer and the consumer.

Sue Jewitt who has been organising swaps in York since 2012 thinks the events have a broad appeal. “The swaps attract a mixed group of people, we have students, allotment holders, and young families who come along” she says. Finding a suitable venue is important for a successful food swap. Cafes are a popular choice, but there have also been events in a community garden, an art gallery and at a children’s book festival. Sue says: “Here in York we’ve been very lucky that Guy Whapples, owner of Bistro Guy, has supported the idea of swapping local produce from the very start. We hold the swaps after the cafe closes and set up in the rear garden of the cafe.”

The social side of food swapping is almost as important as the food itself. Each event is a great opportunity to meet other local grow-your-own enthusiasts, foragers and home bakers in a relaxed atmosphere. While swappers browse the tables of produce available, there are animated conversations about how best to grow some of the herbs, fruit and vegetables on display, recipes are discussed and tips for upcoming local events or the best markets to visit are exchanged. Sue Jewitt says: “You get to meet new people and some swappers continue to swap via social media or in person outside of the swap.”

Building links with local businesses can work for both the swap organiser and the business owner. Guy explains: “As a small local independent business and a supporter of locally grown food it’s great to work alongside a local community food group like Apples For Eggs. Food Swapping in general reflects the ethos of my business, I like to support local seasonal produce and it gets rid of surplus. I don’t like waste. And it’s a great way to get people together.”

In a world where food seasonality has almost been forgotten, and sales are driven largely by convenience and price, it’s easy to see the appeal of food swaps. They return us to a system with personal contact between those producing the food and the consumer, and help in building communities centred on fresh, local produce and shared interests.

Sarah Smith is a writer with a passion for pursuing the stories behind environmental and conservation issues, especially when those issues relate to the food we eat.

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Photo credit: Susy Morris from Flickr

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