materials for food swap

Written and photographed by LaManda Joy

Lamanda Joy
LaManda Joy

Vegetable gardeners are generous people. We have to be, right? With all the bounty our gardens provide in the summer—not to mention all the love we’ve bestowed to get them to that fruitful place—sharing is a natural thing.

My favorite way to handle such an overabundance of riches is through canning and preserving. Not only does it take care of the excess, but I get a huge sense of satisfaction as I survey all those jars of dilly beans, chutneys, pickles, chow chow, tomato sauce, ketchup…the list goes on.

So imagine for a moment what it would be like to be in a room with 10, 20, even 50 or more other people who are just as generous, just as ingenious, and just as in love their garden harvests as you are.

tagged jars of tomato chutney
I made sure to dress up my goods so they’d catch the eyes of other shoppers.

Welcome to the Food Swap.

What’s a food swap, you ask? It’s when people get together to trade delicious foodstuffs they’ve made, grown, and/or harvested themselves—think swapping bread and butter pickles for a homemade peach pie, raspberry preserves for fresh eggs, just-picked Swiss chard for a loaf of sourdough. Sounds great, right?

My first experience with a food swap was last fall at an event held by the Chicago Food Swap at the Peterson Garden Project Learning Center. I had an overabundance of green tomatoes, dill pickles, green tomato chutney, and sunshine pickles, and was eager to share.

The set-up for the swap consisted, simply, of enough table space for each participant to have a spot. As people began to arrive with boxes and baskets of their homemade treasures, the tables quickly filled up with beautiful displays of all sorts of preserved goods, homemade breads and other baked goods, cheeses, candy, eggs, produce—this was starting to look delicious!

signing a swap sheet at a food swap
In a way, a food swap is like a buffet. You need to walk around and look at all the tables before you choose what you want!

Here’s how a food swap works: Each swapper is given a “swap sheet” for each type of item they’re offering. (So I got three, one for each of the pickles and one for the chutney.) On it, you list your name, type of product, ingredients, and what the food could be used for. Then you’re given some time (45 minutes, in my case) to “shop,” during which you walk around and look at all the offerings. If you like something, you put your name on the sheet for that product, along with what you have to swap.

Then the actual swapping—and polite pandemonium—begins, with people working the room, trying to get the great items they have their eyes on. So if, for example, you see on your list that Ellen has dilly beans she wants to trade with you, and you in turn want to score some dilly beans, she either comes to you or you find her (that’s the polite pandemonium part).

My pickles went quickly in exchange for, well, more pickles, plus onion chutney, spicy peach jam, English toffee, homemade cheese, Irish soda bread, and a few other treats. I didn’t get everything I wanted—I had hoped for fresh eggs, but that person already had plenty of pickle offers—but I had the time of my life, and so did everyone else.

It all comes down to this: A food swap is an ingenious way to share your garden’s bounty, load your pantry with new recipes and goodies, and really connect with your community. Try one and you’ll be hooked, I promise. I am!