What is a Food Swap?

Learn what a food swap is and how to start your own exchange of delicious goods!

By Emily Paster


January 2017

Food Swap

Food swaps are a great way for people who love to cook to exchange homemade goods.

Photo by Michael Piazza

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Food Swap (Storey, 2016) by Emily Paster describes a food swap as "a gathering of friends and food lovers to exchange their home-made goods." Paster offers guidance on finding a local food swap, strategies for successful swapping, and the basics on how to start and maintain your own event. Food Swap also includes over 75 recipes as well as labels for you to use at your own swap. This excerpt comes from chapter one, "What is a Food Swap?"

You can purchase this book from the Mother Earth Living store: Food Swap.

The modern food swap movement began in — where else? — Brooklyn, New York, in 2010.

Since then, it has spread to every corner of the United States, Canada, Europe, and even South America and the Antipodes. There are food swaps in every large American city and in many small towns and rural areas. Some food swaps meet once a month; some meet only a few times a year. Some food swaps have 50 participants and some have a dozen. Swaps are held in all kinds of locations, from church basements, parks, and community centers to stores and cooking schools. Some swaps charge admission and some are free.

In short, food swaps take many forms, but they all have the following common elements, many of which the founders of the modern food swap movement, Kate Payne and Megan Paska, established at that first 2010 swap.

No money changes hands.

Trading, not buying, is what the food swap movement is about. A food swap is intended to be a more personal alternative to the commercial food marketplace. There is also a less romantic and more practical reason for this requirement: food that is to be sold is subject to various health and safety regulations. In many states, for example, food that is intended for retail sale must be prepared in a licensed kitchen by someone who has taken required sanitation training, and labeled according to industry standards.

Some states, California being a prime example, have more lenient cottage food laws, but even then, if one prepares food for sale in a home kitchen, that kitchen is subject to inspection by state health regulators. I will discuss the legalities of food swapping in more detail a little later, but for now, the key point is that by swapping rather than selling food, participants in a food swap can avoid triggering this kind of regulation and government scrutiny.      

All items must be made or grown by the participants.

You cannot buy something in a store or at a market and bring it to a food swap to trade. You must bring something homemade or homegrown. Most swappers are hobbyists: home cooks and gardeners who love to grow and prepare homemade food. Some participants may be culinary professionals or farmers, but even they must trade what they bring.

What people bring to food swaps varies widely but can include baked goods, candies, condiments, preserved fruits and vegetables, cheese, fermented foods, drink syrups, alcoholic infusions, hand-milled flours, herbs and produce from vegetable gardens, eggs from backyard chickens, foraged fruits, and so on. I will talk more about what makes a good swap item — and give you plenty of recipes for same — but as you can imagine, the best swap items are things that are portable, not highly perishable, distinctive and delicious.

The requirement that the swap items be homemade or homegrown is just as important as the first requirement about no money changing hands. The point of the food swap movement is to celebrate the growing, raising, and making of food. (I say food here, but sometimes people do bring non-food homemade items, such as dog treats, candles, notecards, or health and beauty products. Whether that is permitted and where to draw the line on what kind of items are allowed is up to the organizer of each individual swap.)

The food swap movement is the natural outgrowth of the DIY revolution that has led cooks everywhere to try their hands at making the kinds of foods that most people buy: foods like cheese, charcuterie, jams, pickles, condiments, and candy. At some point, all those homemade enthusiasts found themselves alone in their kitchens with too much of whatever they liked to make. The food swap movement gets those people out of their kitchens and creates a marketplace, albeit an informal one, for those homemade foods. In short, what makes a food swap a food swap is this: people trading items that they made or grew themselves.

Read more from Food Swap:

• Blueberry-Port Mustard Recipe
• Matcha Cupcakes with Ginger Frosting Recipe
• Raspberry Vinegar Recipe


Excerpted from Food Swap, © by Emily Paster, photography © Michael Piazza Photography, used with permission by Storey Publishing.