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Madison’s first food swap

Slow Food Madison recently collaborated with local food preservers Laura Purdy and John Binkley to host Madison’s first food swap – an event where people trade and barter their homemade/handmade/homegrown products. These events have taken off in popularity in many other parts of the country, and we’re excited to see it starting in Madison! 


We talked to Laura about food swaps, her thoughts on the first one, which happened Monday, November 11 at Goodman Community Center. 

What is a food swap?
Food Swap is an event where members of the community come together to trade homemade, homegrown, and foraged food with one another. Attendees directly trade the items that they bring as a way to diversify the foods in their pantries and make connections with other members of the local food community.  Attendees are welcome to bring as many or as few items as they would like, although the more you bring the more opportunity you have to bring home something new.

What inspired you to start a food swap, where did you hear about it?
I am relatively new to the world of food preserving.  In fact, this summer was only my second year of putting up the harvest but when I try something new I tend to go all in. My partner is an organic vegetable farmer and owner of Equinox Community Farm, so I had a cornucopia of produce to work with.  Long story short, in the fall I ended up with about 2 bookshelves full of canned items and I tried about 50-60 recipes from 6 different canning books.  I ended up staring at my collection and wishing there was a way I could end up with less of this stuff (who needs 15 pints of curried cauliflower pickles?) and more of the food that I wasn’t skilled at making.  Thank goodness for the internet.  I follow quite a few canning related blogs and food swap information was popping up here and there.  I did a lot of reading and decided that it would be a perfect fit for my needs and I was sure there were others out there in the same predicament as myself.

Why are people interested in food swaps?  What benefit do they have?
I think that food swaps appeal to people in a variety of ways, which explains why our first event was so popular.  People who experiment with food tend to love talking about food and sharing their food.  A food swap is a perfect forum for doing both of those things.  For example, I had the opportunity to taste and take home some fermented ginger ale.  I have little experience with fermented food and this was a great introduction.  There were also flavor combinations and ingredients that I had never heard of before, so I not only came away with new items I came away with a whole bunch of new ideas and a wealth of food preservation experts to consult with in the future.

What are the difficulties in starting a food swap?  Are there any tricky legalities you need to be aware of?
I did a lot of reading online when I was setting up the food swap.  Food Swap Network is a great resource with information on hosting food swaps, downloadable templates, and links to other swap websites. I also looked up a few Wisconsin Statutes regarding certain food products. Food swaps must be private events, which is why people must sign up and sign in to the events.  Private events are exempt from the food and health safety codes that public events must adhere to.  (It’s like a potluck among acquaintances vs a public event that serves food.) We also had people sign a disclaimer that stated they used proper food handling methods and that they do not hold the hosts, the venue, or other  participants liable.  It may seem like overkill, but we want to make sure that we do our best to make everyone safe and allow for many more food swaps to occur in the future.

What is your vision/plan for food swaps in Madison?
I definitely believe that there is room to grow for the food swap here in Madison and space for more people to get involved. However I do want to be careful that we continue to foster the personal relationships and trust that makes food swaps so successful and so valuable.  I’m not sure what that sweet spot will end up being, but I’m ready to tweak both the event size and frequency in order to find something that works well for everyone involved.  And ultimately, if the response and enthusiasm is huge, I am definitely willing to help new food swaps get started.  There is such an abundance of food creativity in this area that I see the potential for a multitude of local food swaps centered around different communities.

How do you feel about the food swap that just happened?  Any fun stories?
I was truly blown away by what was brought to our first food swap.  Canned zucchini that tasted like pineapple.  Kefir.  Home-cured bacon.  Caramel sauce.  Fruit butters.  Dried herbs.  Homemade soap.  Elderberry syrup.  Jelly melon.  So many different types of pickles.  I could go on and on.  And the best part of it was how much everyone valued what other people had made.  People who didn’t can things were delighted to receive someone’s tomato sauce.  We ended up trading a whole bunch of sweet potatoes for a whole bunch of goat milk soap.  Everyone went home feeling richer than when they came, where else can you experience that?  The biggest complaint I heard was that attendees wished they had brought more things for trading.  If that isn’t a huge success, I don’t know what is.

What advice do you have for a wanna-be food swapper?
First, keep your eyes and ears open for future events.  I anticipate that they will continue to fill up quickly so you want to be tapped in to your local food organizations like Slow Food Madison. Play to your strengths, but also don’t be afraid to experiment with different flavor combinations.  If you make great pies, try a twist on a classic (maple pecan pie, instead of just pecan pie for example).  Some of the most popular items at the food swap were the unexpected ones.  Use items that are in season, and local if appropriate.  It will connect you even more to the food community and most likely save you money.  And of course, make sure that you adhere to the appropriate food handling techniques especially with things like canning.  I’m more than happy to answer any questions and direct people to resources if they want aren’t sure where to start.

Thanks, Laura, and thanks to everyone who participated! Stay tuned for information about future swaps.