10 Ways to Barter for Food

I’ve got zucchini if you’ve got tomatoes

By Roxanne Webber

Bartering saves money, keeps food local (and seasonal), and allows you to meet neighbors and build community. Here are some of the ways people are trading food, what they’re sharing, and advice about getting involved without getting in trouble (bartering is considered taxable by the IRS, and you don’t want to violate agricultural laws or quarantines that might be in effect in your area).

1. Start a Work for Food Project. In February, Valerie Gates from eastern Massachusetts decided to post an ad in a local agricultural newsletter offering her marketing services to farms in exchange for homegrown food for her family. She received about 15 responses almost immediately and set up bartering deals for stuff like produce, meat, and prepared meals delivered to her door. Her advice to people looking to barter their skills for food is to approach it “very grass-roots. Go to the farmers’ market and ask around.” She also says that, bottom line, you have to offer a service that people need.

2. Craigslist Barter Board. There’s quite a bit of food swapping going down in the bartering section of Craigslist. Dan Holman, a songwriter living in Highland Park, California, recently posted an ad on the Los Angeles site that said: “I have tomatoes, you have … ?” He says that his motive for trying out bartering was “to eat yummy food and spread good vibes with fellow neighbors.” Recently he has bartered about 50 pounds of his surplus garden tomatoes for grapefruit, lemons, figs, mint plants, empty pots, many types of herbs, cucumbers, radishes, cactus, kabocha squash, and Kombucha. If you are bartering on Craigslist, Holman advises good communication: “If I find that something doesn’t add up, or that the vibe from the email isn’t aligned with me, then I don’t go any further with the barter.”

3. Start a Soup Swap. Soup Swap is a simple idea: A bunch of people each make a pot of soup, freeze it in individual containers, get together, and trade. Knox Gardner says it came about when he “grew bored with yet another giant pot of soup.” His website offers advice on how to organize your own swap, a listing of user-submitted Soup Swaps all over the world, as well as recaps and photos. Gardner suggests that people start small and “have an open mind and palate, some humor, and just to relax with all the loveliness that is sharing food.”

4. Veggie Trader. This website is set up to let backyard gardeners swap their extra produce, so if you get stuck with a million plums, you can trade some with another gardener who might have a bumper crop of peas. The site also allows buying and selling of produce. Rob Anderson, one of the site’s cofounders, says Veggie Trader has been growing rapidly since its launch four months ago and now has more than 6,000 members. Participants are 100 percent responsible for knowing the legal aspects of trading produce, which includes quarantine zones (the San Francisco Bay Area is currently under one, so no trading there), tax liability, and licensing. Anderson says that people should check with their state and county departments of agriculture to find out what the requirements are in their area.

5. Barter for Beer. An interesting trend we want to see come to the United States is the Marksman Pub’s bartering night in London: You offer something the pub wants, you get beer. The bar posts a list of stuff it’s looking for (currently needed: a baby seat for a bike, black Sharpies, and CDs for the jukebox). The site explains: “Barter relies on demand and perceived value on both parts, as well as trust. It is an experience that transcends money exchange as we know it. Above all, we think nice people are cool.”

6. Go to a Barter Faire. Barter faires are often crossovers with other hippie fests, with stuff like drum circles, camping, live music, and people trading and selling their homegrown and handmade wares. Megan Prusynski runs a website that lists the barter faires in the Pacific Northwest. She says for the most part bartering and trading is highly encouraged at festivals. “I’ve seen organic farmers and gardeners selling/bartering fresh produce, dried herbs, or seeds at their booths at faires. … I have traded soap for meals at the food booths at several faires.” Lesson: Know what sort of commodities are going to be in demand when you set out to barter.

7. Neighborhood Fruit. More of a sharing tool than a formal bartering site, Neighborhood Fruit is a fledgling website that lets people with fruit trees give away their crop. It currently has 7,000 registered trees, the majority of which are in the San Francisco Bay Area, but the site is expanding nationally. If you want to find fruit, you can look for stuff offered from backyards, or pinpoint fruit on public trees. To contact someone about his fruit or to offer up your own, you need to register on the site and then follow the easy directions. To help with liability issues, the site provides waivers for people to sign so that fruit sharers don’t have to worry about someone falling off a ladder and suing them. Like with Veggie Trader, you’ll still have to do your own research about local agricultural quarantines and laws, but cofounder Kaytea Petro says that info about these regulations is added to the site’s Gardening Tips forum whenever possible.

8. Work at a Farm Booth. Sometimes farms take volunteers to help them at their farmers’ market booths in exchange for food. Jessica Lynn-Lato, a food blogger and Chowhound, says she’s volunteered a few times at a booth that pays volunteers in organic pork. “It kind of grew out of my regularly buying pork from them at market. … They mentioned that they occasionally take volunteers to help out at the various markets.” She advises people to get to know their farm community at the market and then simply ask if people take volunteers. “I think many farmers would welcome an extra hand in exchange for a bag of vegetables.”

9. Turn on the Tradio. Many local AM radio stations still do an old-school swap meet hour (a.k.a. tradio or swap shop) every week, or even every day. People can call in and say what items they want to sell, trade, or get ahold of. It’s like a radio classified ad, but free. People try to hawk all sorts of stuff, from green beans and live chickens to cooking magazine collections and cookware, so it’s worth a shot to try to arrange a trade.

10. Talk to Your Neighbors, Family, and Friends. The low-tech approach may be the best place to start. Plus, getting to know your neighbors is one of the greatest reasons to start bartering in the first place—because, let’s face it, you’re unlikely to be able to barter so many goods and services that you can give up your job and survive without cash. But you might end up with some lemons from your neighbor and a way better sense of community on your block.

CHOW’s The Ten column appears every Tuesday.

Roxanne Webber is an associate editor at CHOW.

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