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Local Swap Scene Encourages Community Building






Tables piled high with mouthwatering homemade edibles such as fresh scones and honey biscuits, blueberry-lavender jam, orange blossom syrup and elderberry wine made from foraged berries may sound like a scene from a fairy tale or Tolkien novel rather than a practical, modern-day event taking place on an apartment rooftop in Brooklyn or in a backyard in the Florida suburbs. But in recent years, the food swap movement has made scenes like this a reality in communities across the nation.

The movement combines old-fashioned resourcefulness with a community-oriented philosophy and modern-day sensibilities to elevate the practice of "shopping local'' to an entirely new level: Swapping local. On Florida's Gulf coast, the Sarasota Swappers host regional swaps where participants leave their wallets at home and barter instead with homemade edibles like the treats listed above and other food items such as homegrown herbs, vegetables and backyard eggs, as well as hand-crafted goods like bath and massage oils, hand-spun yarns, stationary, household items, jewelry and children's toys.

"Essentially, the point of swapping is that we all have skills that are really valuable, and we can trade the products that we make from those skills for other handmade products that are also very valuable,'' says Cheryl Kindred, founder and co-organizer of the Sarasota Swappers.

Sarasota Swappers is a member of the worldwide food swap alliance, Food Swap Network, whose founding members organized some of the first official swaps in March, 2010 in Brooklyn, NY. Following the inaugural event, food swaps gained rapid popularity in communities throughout the United States and abroad, and today more than 130 recognized swap groups exist across the globe from Honolulu to Denmark.

Although the rules vary slightly from group to group (for instance, the Sarasota Swappers diverge somewhat from the strictly food-oriented swaps with their inclusion of hand-crafted practical items in addition to edibles), the basic parameters for a typical swap are universal.

Negotiating A Good Deal For All

Swaps generally last approximately two hours and start with a potluck social that gives participants a chance to sign in and grab a "swap sheet'' to keep track of the items that interest them, mingle with other members of the local food and craft community and check out the goods -- perhaps even sampling some of the baked treats, fresh produce, jams, preserves, cured meats, spices and other items up for trade. All items must be homegrown, foraged or hand-crafted to qualify for swapping, which occurs during the final half hour of the event when swappers strike up negotiations and barter for the coveted items marked on their swap sheets.

"I feel that there is this tendency for consumers in our culture to own so much, but that much of what we own is not necessarily something of quality. Things that are homemade are really special; they're quality items. It's sort of a nod to the past when this was all anyone did,'' Kindred says.

A typical food and handmade craft swap hosted by the Sarasota Swappers includes a cornucopia of edibles and hand-crafted goods that range from all-natural household items to Pinterest-inspired home decor and luxurious gifts. In addition to the fresh-caught fish, all-natural beef jerky, homegrown herbs and vegetables, backyard eggs, fresh salsas, jams, baked goods and spice blends typically featured in Sarasota swaps, some swappers bring practical home items such as all-natural insect repellents, apple cider vinegars, homemade laundry detergent kits, wool dryer balls, hand-sewn kitchen towels and re-usable market bags. Stovetop potpourri, sugar and salt body scrubs, chocolate-infused lip gloss and body lotion bars, homemade candies, R-rated edible body oils and hand-beaded jewelry are among other items at past swaps, which Sarasota Swappers co-organizer, Liz Sniegocki, documents in the Sarasota Swappers Blog.

Kindred and Sniegocki, who befriended one another through a Sarasota conscious parenting group, began hosting the first local swaps in the summer of 2011. Kindred says they were inspired by the success of the Brooklyn food swap and similar events throughout the country, and that what began as a small potluck and informal swap among friends quickly caught on and developed into a full-fledged, planned and organized food and craft swap.

"There were about 15 people at the first swap and several of us are parents, so there were lots of kids, too, and it just felt really exciting. It was almost like we'd stumbled upon something really, really special. We had no idea it was going to be such a hit,'' Kindred recalls.

Attracting A Small Crowd

Word of mouth spread quickly, and the group established a Facebook page to organize future swaps. As the group continued to grow, Sarasota Swappers received local media buzz from publications such as Edible Sarasota and This Week in Sarasota, and Kindred says it became necessary to cap swap attendance levels at 30 people to prevent the popular event from becoming too overwhelming.

Today, dedicated swappers living on Florida's Gulf coast travel south from Tampa and north from the Fort Myers area to attend the Sarasota swaps. The location for each swap generally rotates among veteran swappers' homes and kid-friendly event spaces such as public parks and the Fogartyville Community Media and Arts Center in downtown Sarasota. The group welcomes new swappers to attend the potluck and swap without feeling pressured to participate in the bartering during their first visit.

"It can feel very intimidating the first time you come,'' Kindred says. "Newcomers are sometimes concerned about the 'economics of swapping' or nervous about what to make and how to swap it out at first. We invite everyone to check it out and get comfortable with the idea before they commit to participating.''

Those interested in learning more about the two-year-old group or attending a swap are encouraged to visit the Sarasota Swappers official Facebook page, which is regularly updated with Sarasota Swapper news and upcoming events.

"There's a certain stereotype about homemaking that I think swap groups are helping break -- this idea of the 1950s housewife who takes care of the kids and loses herself in housekeeping, and the idea that making things -- like jams, for instance -- is a chore,'' Kindred says.

"There's nothing boring or 'housewifey' about what we do, though. I like making things that are luxurious, beautiful and high quality. For me it's a very interesting balance. I do it because it's something I enjoy, and I always come away with from the each swap with something really special.''

Jessi Smith, a native Floridian, is a freelance writer who lives and works in downtown Sarasota. When she isn't writing about local arts and culture, she can generally be found practicing yoga or drinking craft beers and talking about her magnificent cat. Jessi received her bachelor's degree in art history from Florida International University and, predictably, perpetually smells of patchouli. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

Read more articles by Jessi Smith.

 Jessi Smith is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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