When I was growing up, I used to watch my grandparents grow corn, lettuce, onions, cucumbers, tomatoes and potatoes. Their property in rural, southern Ohio was home to an apple tree and a beautiful cherry tree, in which I spent many hours engrossed in the private world of my childhood imagination. My grandparents canned their produce, as well as homemade salsa, vegetable soup, and the best jam I’ve ever tasted. They pickled everything. The unique flavor of Ohio green beans still reminds me of the long, late summer afternoons I spent on my grandmother’s front porch, picking the pointy tips off the beans while she expertly peeled apples, slicing off the skin in one long coil.
What was a matter of course for our grandparents – for many Americans of their generation – is a bit of a revelation for most of us today. Two generations ago, preparing the majority of your meals at home from whole ingredients, eating locally and seasonally, and knowing where your food came from were not radical ideas. This was simply how most Americans lived. There were local butchers, local bakers, and the milkman brought fresh jars to your house from a local farm. In the intervening years, of course, this way of life has been largely lost.
I don’t want to idealize the past. My grandparents were raised on a diet of fresh, local food, but they spent a significant portion of each day just working to feed themselves – a sacrifice many of us today couldn’t realistically imagine. However, as with so many aspects of life, balance is what is important here. I am not advocating a return to the past, but I am suggesting that our grandparents had a certain wisdom about the importance of understanding what we eat and where it comes from – they had meaningful connections with their food – and it would greatly benefit us to revive those connections.
Enter Kendra Poma, founder of the East Bay Homemade Food Swap in Oakland, California. The swaps, held at various locations throughout the city, occur quarterly and typically draw around 25 people who come to barter their homemade or home-grown food items. In July, I attended one of these swaps, held at Poma’s Oakland home. (The next swap will be held on October 14.) I came prepared with an organic apple cake (my great-grandmother’s recipe) and two-dozen organic oatmeal cookies (Martha Stewart’s recipe).
I was amazed by the quality and creativity of the items that the others brought. Delicious vegan cookies, rabbit pot pie, mint chocolate herbal tea, home-brewed beer, pickled green beans, applesauce and pear sauce – the list goes on. The items were expertly crafted and the event demonstrated the extent to which some Americans are recognizing the importance of understanding where our food comes from. They’re craving the spiritual nourishment that comes from preparing one’s own food with love – and sharing it with others. Food, of course, is an important community-building tool.
“The swaps create a space for people to get together and find a common interest – people who wouldn’t otherwise meet,” Poma said. “I love the variety of people I meet, bound by a love for anything culinary.”
Here is how the swaps work: all attendee are given sheets of paper on which to describe the homemade items they bring. The form includes space for the other guests to indicate what they are willing to trade for a particular item.
Like urban farms and CSAs, food swaps are also important because they provide a resource for urbanites who might otherwise lack convenient access to fresh, healthy, organic foods. This is particularly true for those living in urban food deserts.
“In low-income neighborhoods, swaps offer another way to eat well without having a lot,” Poma said.
In addition, food swaps symbolize a desire to circumvent the corporate food chain. The commercial food system is, of course, rampant with atrocities, like the terrible treatment of animals and the baffling array of pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, and chemical additives that we as consumers are exposed to when we eat mass-produced, food-like products. The brilliance of corporate food systems is that they make us dependent. We become accustomed to buying everything we eat at a large chain grocery store, in boxes and bags that need only to be microwaved for three minutes. This is incredibly disempowering and has caused us, as a culture, to forget both our innate wisdom about the spiritual and physical benefits of good food and the skills we need to grow and prepare food. The vicious cycle continues and we remain dependent upon large corporations to feed us whatever they see fit.
I left the swap that day with a renewed sense of faith in the important work being done by many average Americans towards reclaiming our food system. And, if you’re wondering, I also left with a jar of pear sauce, a canister of herbal tea, and one jar each of salsa and bruschetta.