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Food Swaps

Like a typical pregnant woman, I woke up this morning with food on my mind. However, it wasn’t the stereotypical indulgences and strange combinations like bon bons or peanut butter and pickle sandwiches. Instead, I was thinking about the idea of small-scale food swaps, something I believe could become the future of how people might obtain the majority of their food needs.

The idea came to me as a result of experiences I had during the recent 4-course series the Permaculture Research Institute USA (PRI USA) held on the small Island of Molokai, Hawaii. As part of the Molokai Permaculture Education Initiative, PRI USA sponsored approximately 15 local Molokai residents to take all 4 courses in the series (Permaculture Design Course, Practicum, Teacher Training, Earthworks). In partnership with local group Sust’Aina Ble Molokai, it was our goal that this integrated training would provide these students with a solid skill set in permaculture that would lead to a highly-motivated army of local activists, ready to share skills with the larger community and take on island-wide projects that would pave the road to a sustainable future.

In exchange for sponsorship, local students contributed whatever resources they had access to toward running the courses, including a site to hold classes, tools, machinery, temporary housing for staff and students, transportation, cultural experiences, humorous and insightful stories and lots of local food.

Many of our students were avid hunters and gardeners. Every morning they would arrive with different combinations of fresh venison, fish, sweet potatoes, yams, salad and cooking greens, breadfruit, avocados, papayas, mangos, oranges, pomelos, pomegranite, coconuts, tomatoes, local honey and baked goods. We also had access to the course site’s garden, plentiful with taro, hot peppers, bananas and a variety of herbs.

Since we had to cook breakfast and lunch for 30-40 people for 5 weeks, these free inputs significantly reduced our food bill. And, they were fresh, free of chemicals, didn’t require mass transportation and packaging, and were grown, hunted or made with a lot of aloha.

By the end of the courses, the kitchen staff had successfully mastered the “work with what you’ve got” concept. In fact, many days we had no idea what we’d be making for lunch the next day until we saw the bounty of the morning. We quickly learned to make delicious multi-course meals out this daily delivery. (Of course, we had been previously trained by the master of impromptu cooking, Shenaqua Sookhoo-Jones). But, cooking for 5 weeks really anchored the skill set for us.

Eventually, what started becoming apparent to me, with each morning’s food delivery, was that there was a lot of local variety available on this island. Even though statistics state that Molokai (and Hawaii in general) imports 70-90% of its food supply, what we were receiving was more than sufficient to cover at least 70% of a typical family’s food needs. In other words, who really needs a grocery store when you’ve got access to this much variety?

This is when the idea of food swaps popped into my head. And, I’m not talking about farmers’ markets or Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) delivery services, which are generally based on money-exchange. What I’m talking about is a small group of people getting together to regularly trade what they grow, hunt, gather or make — in equal exchange.

Perhaps it’s already being done elsewhere, but to me the concept is new. The process could function something like this:

Get 10 local people in a community together who each have some type of local food to offer, which is surplus to them. Have each person separate quantities into increments of $5 value. The group meets once a week at one member’s home. Each person brings ten $5 units of their surplus. Everyone trades their goods for what they need. They all come in with only 1 or 2 varieties. But, they go home with a mixed variety of purely-local goods that will make up the majority of the upcoming week’s food supply for them and their family.

Absolutely no money is exchanged, there is no middleman involved, people get to focus on providing what they are good at obtaining (and have in surplus) and everyone walks away with a variety of tasty foods.

I just love this idea. It sounds so simple and possible to me. It doesn’t require that any one person be a master of foods, only one or two. I am now determined to set up a group of my own. More to come on that.

On a side note, like a typical pregnant woman, I am eating a chocolate sundae with bananas and whip cream as I write this article.

Further Reading:


  1. Just the other day I was pondering the idea of a web based Food trading service that was designed for local community/district food exchanges, the idea to minimize the need for cash even if cash was still used when needed. I found a few examples, which look ok. I like your idea of getting together face to face sounds much better. I would like to hear what your next steps are.

  2. Since I attended the inspiring course ‘Food and urban development’ by Carolyn Steele (author of ‘Hungry city’) at Wageningen University in the Netherlands last month, I’m thinking about starting a food network that works on different scales at the same time. Where farmers as well as small producers can take part. A finely dispersed grid in which food-miles are minimised by the use of bikes and/or electrical vehicles.

    It’s an organically functioning structure where all exisisting sustainable food-initiatives can exchange their produce in a sustainable way. The general idea is a bit similar to a ‘smartgrid’ for sustainable energy. But without the total dependance on IT.

    That’s where ideas such as Nichole’s come in. The network should be resilient and therefore able to function both with and without the internet. That’s another reason to keep the connection-lines short, apart from the transport. Participants know their position within the network; i.e. the people that surround them.

    But how to connect over larger distances and how to deal with availabilty?
    I think it requires many small-scale distribution points combined with an system of trading with stamps or tokens, collectively controled as an association.

  3. I belong to the local LETS system and the local Permaculture group and many of our members have joined a new local non-profit group called Local Food Connect that has set up weekly food swaps all over our region. They have not been running 1 year yet so have taken a while to get attendances up, but each week we see an improvement in numbers. Our area is rich in gardens, being in an outer suburban area of Melbourne called the Green Wedge Shire, and there are even several orchards in the area, including 1 community orchard. Personally I have been amazed by the wide variety of fruit and veg available at these food swaps, and have been encouraged to try new produce myself. When people eat fresh, seasonal and possibly organic food, they automatically become healthier, and therefore happier-a happy community is stronger and more productive, as well as making the planet healthier one food swap at a time!

  4. There are quite a few in Melbourne now. Also I am starting a swap in Northcote (Melb) on June 4th. Very similar to what you are describing but monthly at the moment. Exciting stuff.

  5. Hi Nichole,
    Yes a great concept and widely gaining in popularity. I’ve just started a monthly food swap in Dromana (Mornington Peninsula Home Harvest Exchange)and hope to instigate a network of them on the Mornington Peninsula.
    Have ytou seen anm excellent movie- The Economics of Happiness? It’s available to purchse on their website- highly recommended.
    All the best to you!

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