It Doesn’t Get More Local than the Chicago Food Swap

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March 25, 2013 at 11:46 am

On Super Bowl Sunday a group of thirty-five people assembled at Katherine Anne Confections storefront in Logan Square far away from any television. There were young women in their twenties, moms with kids in tow, and a few husbands and boyfriends as well. They carried boxes full of homemade creations: loaves of bread, toothsome sweets, exotic jams, drink syrups, flavored mustards, and pickled vegetables. A buzz built in the room as the proud cooks began admiring each other’s offerings and peppering one another with questions: How did you make that? How do you use it? Would you like to trade for one of mine? Welcome to the February meeting of the Chicago Food Swap.

What is a food swap? Food swaps were one of 2012’s hottest food trends and are only becoming more popular. At a food swap, home cooks and gardeners trade their homemade and homegrown food stuffs. Everything is made by the swappers themselves and no money changes hands. Along with the food, cooks find themselves trading inspiration and forging relationships with other passionate foodies in their community.

Food swaps are the natural outgrowth of the expanding do-it-yourself movement that is causing people all over America to raise backyard chickens, plant vegetable gardens and revive the lost art of home food preservation. After all, at some point, one family cannot eat all those eggs or all that jam. Why not swap your jam for someone else’s homemade granola or spice mix?  With the popularity of social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter, it has become easier than ever for these DIY cooks to find one another.  Consequently, food swaps have popped up all over the country from Brooklyn to Austin, TX to Los Angeles.

In 2011, after reading a story about the Philadelphia food swap and discovering that no such event existed here, I approached my neighbor, Vanessa Druckman about bringing the food swap trend to Chicago. As food bloggers, we wanted to meet other people who are as passionate about food as we are.  We started small with only a dozen swappers at our first event in December 2011. But by our fourth swap in August 2012, we had to cap the participants at forty and turn away several people from the wait list.

Now, eighteen months later, registration for a Chicago Food Swap event fills up days after it opens. Due to space constraints at our host businesses, we typically have to limit registration to between thirty and forty swappers.  We had previously been holding swaps every other month, but as demand has grown and more businesses have been willing to open their doors to us, we have moved to holding swaps more frequently. However, even with this growing demand, the Chicago Food Swap does not charge admission. In the interest of keeping the community spirit, it is always free to participate.

The Chicago Food Swaps follow a similar format. Swappers arrive and set up their offerings. Everyone fills out a swap card for each different item that they bring listing its ingredients and suggested uses. The first half hour is spent mingling and checking out the different offerings. If a swapper sees something interesting, he or she suggests a trade on the swap card for that item.  After thirty minutes, the actual swapping begins. All swaps are negotiated individually and no one is obligated to swap with anyone else. Luckily, it usually works out so that everyone goes home happy with their arms full of delicious food.

You certainly don’t have to be a gourmet cook to participate in a food swap. As long as you can make one delicious thing worth trading, you are welcome to join us. As summer approaches, a food swap is also a great way for gardeners to get some value for their homegrown fruits, vegetables and herbs. The truth is, the Chicago Food Swap is all about building community and forging connections through food. You will find us to be a warm and welcoming group.

People interested in participating in a future food swap, should check out our website (www.chicagofoodswap.com) or like our Facebook page: www.facebook.com/chicagofoodswap. The April 7 swap at Local Goods Chicago is full, but there will be another swap on May 12 at The Scrumptious Pantry in Logan Square. Registration for the May swap will open on April 1.

We move the location of the swaps all around the Chicago area from Hinsdale to Logan Square in order to reach as many people as possible. If you know of a possible location for a swap in your area, please let us know that as well. We have found that local businesses with a food or local focus, such as spice stores or local craft boutiques, are often amenable to hosting a swap as a way to reach out to potential new customers.

Hope to swap with you soon!


Emily Paster is a freelance writer and mother of two living in the Chicago suburbs. She writes about food and parenting on her blog, West of the Loop (http://www.westoftheloop.com). She co-founded the Chicago Food Swap with Vanessa Druckman in 2011.

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