Food swaps - what they are and how to get involved.

I used to think that the best part of living in San Diego was access to so many farmers markets. Our farmers markets are not only year around but there are a few dozen and they happen almost every day of the week.

Food Swap Club - bread, cheese, produceFarmers Markets

Farmers markets are great because in general you’ll find the fruits and vegetables to be a lot fresher than what you can find in the store. A second advantage is that I wanted to buy food locally, support my community with my dollars and get to know my farmers. I felt pretty good at doing most of my shopping at the farmer’s market because I was moving one step forward to helping be more sustainable.

Not All food At The Farmer’s Markets Is Local

One vendor who sells organic apples has a 12-hour drive and distributes to all the local markets. Being that we are in San Diego and we only have a few varieties that can handle the lack of chill hours, I wasn’t much of a fan of the Anna or Dorsett so I’ll be honest. I was ok that these were not local. I really figured that I wouldn’t find anything better.

My goal of getting to know my farmers at the farmer’s markets didn’t go so well. I found after over 16 years I still don’t really know them. They are usually too busy to talk during the markets and I feel uncomfortable asking them enough questions to get to the bottom of how they grow and what their beliefs are about soil. I don’t care so much if they are officially organic. I care more about what is sprayed or used and how sustainable they are.

Recently, I discovered a better way to help the planet, my pocketbook and get access to even better food than what I can find at the farmers market. My new discovery is called a Food Swap.

Carlsbad Food SwapFood Swaps

Have you ever driven past a home with large, mature fruit trees? You see enough fruit to feed at least 50 households and yet you realized after months of driving past that tree that the fruit is not harvested. The fruit just falls and rots. The great thing about these old trees is that usually the owners of the property aren’t interested in spraying or doing anything to the tree. It just grows and produces some great fruit. Some of them are interesting heirloom varieties of fruit you’d never find anywhere for sale.

Likewise, have you ever grown something and it produced so much that you couldn’t give enough away? You might be great at growing herbs like rosemary, basil and sage but get so much that you are never be able to use it all. Or maybe you grow tomatoes, cucumbers and zucchini and you’re so sick of it that you can’t stand to make another recipe using it. You might have even started giving it to friends and family but after a while they don’t want or need anymore.

Surplus Produce

Our local food swap started when one mom who had a surplus of fruits decided to trade with other friends who had a surplus of other fruits. She put together a Facebook group for her and her friends. The group started out small but after a newspaper article and word of mouth, it soon grew to well over 2000 members.

Our swaps were inefficient at first. Trading one item turned out to be a pain. I quickly discovered driving 15 min to trade my fennel and onions in order to get eggs wasn’t worth it. Another time I was so excited to find mulberries but after a 45 min drive each way I realized that it really wasnt’ worth the time and gas to get a few large bags of fruit.

Going Local

Eventually, someone on the group decided to pick a day, time and location to do some trading as a group. Everyone was invited.

The invite was so exciting, although  I had no idea what to expect. I brought a table, a table cloth and everything extra from my garden. I didn’t think I had enough to bring or that my produce was that interesting.

That day in Escondido at the park, 26 other people showed up to that first trade. I begged my husband to come help me as I wanted a bit of support. He wasn’t thrilled but he obliged, even though he expected it to be pretty boring. I expected I’d see people trading a lot of lettuce, tomatoes and citrus, which would save me buying it from the farmer’s market or store.

Food Swap Club - produce and homemade goodsYou Don’t Need A Garden

The food swap was nothing like I would have imagined.

Not everyone in the group has a garden or has enough produce to trade so they got creative. Some of the fantastic and unusual items were homemade soap, lip balm, homemade bread, grapefruit scones, jams, jellies, chocolate truffles, cookies, muffins, granola and natural all-purpose cleaner made from essential oils.

Of course there were also lots of fruits and vegetables too. I saw peaches, every kind of citrus imaginable, apples, chicken eggs, quail eggs, macadamia nuts, walnuts, radishes, sorrel, blackberries as well as other backyard fruits and vegetables in season.

We set out our fruits, vegetables or homemade items by 11:00. The organizer told us we had 15 min to see what everyone else had but we were not allowed to trade yet so that everyone had a chance to look. At 11:15 our trades began. By 11:35 we had finished trading as had most everyone else. No money was allowed to be exchanged – only bartering was allowed.

I came back with a lot of food. It was far more food then I would even buy at the farmer’s markets.

Food In San Diego

Food in San Diego – especially food that is grown as organic, no sprays and/or sustainably is pricey. I added up how much it would cost me to buy the items I received and felt exhilarated that it was about $70 worth of food. I had spent less than an hour in my garden collecting my Swiss Chard, Kale, Sugar Cane, comfrey, goji berries and several herbs to trade.

Wow, my food was worth that much to others. I felt abundant. I felt the abundance of gardening and mother nature.

You might think that everyone who attended did the swap to save money on food, right? Well, you’d be wrong. We have a very wealthy community about 30 min away and it is becoming quite a trend for them to join us. Super fresh food and unique food that is grown sustainably is priceless. You can’t find some of this at the store or farmer’s markets. You’ll find rare heirloom varieties of fruit and vegetables at our swaps but more importantly we’re getting back to the way food is supposed to be distributed – locally and with people you actually know.

Food Swap Club - EggsWhy Do A Food Swap?

I asked someone I swap food with often who drives down from Julian in the mountains (1 hour drive) with her apples and quail eggs why she does it and she said, “For variety, and so that food doesn’t go to waste. Also to try new things. It’s nice to meet other people with the same mentality that me. A lot of the people are also into organic, self-sustaining.”

I’ve been to 8 trades and each one just gets better for me. The way we have traded has shifted and morphed. I’ve learned what to bring that is highly valued and gets me nearly any trade I want.

Have you been to a food swap? What do you want to know about it? Share your experiences in the comments. Sign up for the Food Swap Club Newsletter.

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Diane Downey and Sheri Menelli specialize in earth-friendly landscaping practices, including vegetable gardening, rainwater capture, soil health, native plants, and efficient irrigation. Diane is a professional landscape designer with over 10 years’ experience, and Sheri is a certified permaculture designer with a six-year-old food forest in her backyard. Combined, they have over two decades of teaching experience. Their classes are taught to the public in the classroom, in the field, and via one-on-one garden coaching sessions.
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