Food Swapping for Sustainability: Overview
You have a glut of lemons and your family and friends are pleading “No more!”. Wild parsley is pushing up your pavers. Your signature banana cake recipe deserves wider public recognition. You have heaps of seed saved from last year’s best chillies. If you have found yourself in any of these situations, perhaps what you need is a neighbourhood food swap.
Of course, food swapping is hardly a new phenomenon. Home gardeners have always exchanged produce or given it away. It is not unusual for community or church events to include swapping of food along with other items like toys or books and community gardeners regularly share produce.
What is new is the emergence of events designed specifically for food exchange, where no money changes hands, which are organised by people with food security, public health and community building in mind. And although such events are certainly not exclusive to Australia, we are certainly in the vanguard of this exciting new movement.
As the phenomenon is in its infancy it is not easy to obtain comprehensive figures about the level of activity. There are no official, dedicated national or international food swappers newsletters — as yet — and no central bodies registering food swaps or collecting statistics but we can glean some information.
When Peta Christensen, a Melbourne community gardens support worker (who received a Churchill Fellowship to travel widely to study developments in urban agriculture), compiled her comprehensive report in 2005, she made no mention of food swaps. It seems reasonable to surmise that they were rarities overseas back then and even today, googling “food swaps” nets a very meagre haul — a few scattered meetings throughout the USA, Canada and the UK.
Here in Australia, food swapping appears to have originated in a project called the Urban Orchard established in 2004 at Melbourne’s Centre for Education and Research in Environmental Strategies (CERES). The project initially focused on utilising the surplus backyard fruit of the abundant plantings of Mediterranean post-war migrants across the inner-northern suburbs of Melbourne.
Since then, food swapping at Ceres has extended to include vegetables, herbs, seedlings and seeds. Participants from over 180 local households, representing a mix of age groups and cultural and socio-economic backgrounds, now exchange produce every single Saturday morning. Glenda Lindsay, who two years ago was one of the founders of the Yarra Urban Harvest in Fitzroy, cites the “swap table” at Ceres as a major inspiration.
Ceres Urban Orchard has compiled a national list of food swaps. There are currently four in South Australia — three in Adelaide and one in Gawler. New South Wales has one in Wollongong, and in Queensland, Brighton is a host. Rural Victoria is represented by Sale, but Melbourne is clearly the epicentre with eight different food exchanges per month.
Food swaps have even attracted some recent mainstream recognition. On 13 March, Ceres, Yarra Neighbourhood Orchard and Cultivating Community co-hosted the “World’s Biggest Eva Vegie Swap” in the City Square as part of Melbourne’s Food and Wine Festival.