July 21, 2020 — The At Home Issue
Citrus for Sourdough, Eggs for Yeast
A pandemic exposes issues in our food supply chain, but encourages alternative long-term solutions, including barter systems.
In the first week of California’s shelter-in-place order, my neighbor and I created a spreadsheet where people on our street could share needs and resources. In one entry, a neighbor offered several of his summer squash in exchange for butternut. At first, this barter request struck me as quaint; but only a few days later it seemed prescient. As time wore on and grocery shelves remained bare, the idea of vegetable exchange seemed essential.
The coronavirus pandemic has applied pressure to the fissures in our food system. Many people, sensing these vulnerabilities for the first time, are turning to local and homegrown food rather than unseasonal items shipped hundreds of miles. As we return to more traditional ways of feeding ourselves—growing and preparing food at home—we also return to the barter economy. A scene that would have seemed old fashioned at the beginning of this year is now commonplace: one neighbor passes a bouquet of herbs over the fence to another, who disappears into the house and returns with homemade bread.
Exchanging food with friends and neighbors is nothing new. “Bartering has always played a role in low-income households, and history tells us that you see an increase in bartering in economic crises,” says Sinikka Elliott, a sociology professor at the University of British Columbia who studies social inequality. In low-income communities, trading keeps people fed and connected. In rural areas where households tend gardens, livestock or even farms, it’s common practice to swap one person’s abundance of produce for another’s surplus of fresh eggs.
Beyond a means of connecting and coping during a pandemic, could a return to bartering build resilience into our fractured food system?
Food systems experts think so. During the pandemic’s initial peak in the U.S., economists and ecologists predicted the coronavirus would push the United States’ already precarious food system into crisis. Several months later, the threat of a global food system fallout continues. Meanwhile, surging unemployment means thousands of U.S. families have joined the ranks of the food insecure. In a USAID toolkit designed to equip leaders to respond during a pandemic, experts suggest steps for building local food security. One of their recommendations? Start bartering.
“Access to fresh fruits and vegetables is always a concern in our community,” says Angie Carter, professor of environmental and energy justice at Michigan Technological University. But this insecurity isn’t a geographic problem; despite the Upper Peninsula’s short growing season, there’s an abundance of fresh food. “It’s a social organization problem,” Carter explains. The challenge is distributing fresh food to people who need it, including the elderly and families without reliable transportation.
Residents cope with this problem in part through bartering. The Upper Peninsula’s history of food exchange precedes white settlement. When European settlers arrived, many adopted indigenous foraging, hunting and preserving practices, traditions that continue to this day. Today, the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community hosts workshops at their community garden to empower locals to start their own gardens. In this region, growing and exchanging food is a common way of life. “Some places I’ve lived, people would see this as charity. Here, people see bartering food as part of being neighborly,” says Carter.
The region’s network of food and knowledge exchange is not often captured in USDA surveys, but is no less abundant for lack of data. The problem is cementing these exchanges into the fabric of the community. This kind of work has always been important, Carter says, “but I think we’re more motivated to do that now because of the pandemic.” One solution that Carter suggests is to set up food barter stations in existing meeting spaces, like the library, post office and churches.
Not only does this sharing economy deepen social connection, it also educates people about the abundance of local and seasonal food. When someone gives berry jam to their neighbor, that neighbor has a chance to ask where to pick their own berries and how to preserve them. “It’s important not just to think of the literal exchange, but also the knowledge exchange and the cultural awareness exchange,” Carter says. “Those are all part of the bartering system too.”
Houston’s Northline neighborhood sits nearly 1,500 miles south of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. These communities share something in common: a high rate of food insecurity. Chef Jonny Rhodes grew up in the Northline area where bartering fed families. His grandmother grew apricots, pecans and figs, and Rhodes caught crawfish in a nearby ditch. His grandfather smoked venison sausage to trade with friends, while his grandmother swapped what she grew for eggs and pork with the nextdoor neighbor. “For Afrocentric people in the South, it is a cultural identity to do those things,” Rhodes says.
Today, Rhodes is the chef and owner of Indigo, a neo-soul restaurant, and Broham, a soul food-focused grocery store. Both businesses sit down the street from his grandmother’s house. The restaurant and grocery operate with the multi-part mission of feeding people, celebrating African American culinary traditions, and combatting food apartheid.
Rhodes is hopeful that one of the pandemic’s silver linings might be a movement toward trading food. “I think food bartering is the key to freedom globally,” he says. And he believes that tackling agricultural oppression—the barriers that keep people from owning or accessing land—is the first step toward building a more robust barter economy. In order to barter you need something to trade; to have food to trade, you need means of producing.
“If you have land that you own, you can grow on it. You can have equity in your family,” Rhodes says. “If we start having real conversations about food inequality and other inequalities, when we get to the base of it, a lot of that can be solved with access to land.”
Particularly for low-income communities like Northline, food bartering buys freedom from a cash economy. An established barter system gives people a ticket to food resilience. For families impacted by food insecurity, a return to the traditional practices of growing and exchanging food can bolster resilience—both by increasing access to fresh and local food and by strengthening social bonds.
One of bartering’s biggest benefits is inclusivity. While much of the local food conversation centers on farmers’ markets and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), those avenues aren’t accessible to everyone. Farmers’ markets don’t always accept SNAP benefits, and the up-front cost of a CSA membership prohibits many from joining. Bartering, on the other hand, includes anyone with something to trade—even if that something is a can of beans from a food pantry.
For five years, Sinikka Elliott conducted hundreds of interviews with food-insecure families in North Carolina. Among study participants, food exchanges were often as simple as a mother swapping one type of canned good for another that her kids liked more. In this way, bartering offered dignity and choice to people who weren’t often extended either when it came to food.
There were social benefits as well. Elliott noticed the pride and resourcefulness that grew from exchanging foods that supported a family’s health and preferences. One of the study’s participants talked often about how she was “always blessed to have a full freezer” with enough to share. “A big part of her identity was sharing food with others in her community,” Elliott says.
Of course, there are drawbacks to this kind of communal reliance. When bartering is not a choice but a necessity, it can create a psychological burden. “Sometimes these supportive webs were also big emotional drains on people,” Elliott says. Social exchange requires emotional work, something that people who are struggling to get by may not be able to offer.
Still, the distribution of local food is an essential piece of a functioning food system—and bartering is a powerful and democratic way to distribute. Even those who don’t have the time or ability to tend their own garden can trade shelf-stable food for fresh produce. This kind of distribution makes communities more resilient to shocks—like a global pandemic, labor shortages, or transportation. “We can do this all in trade,” Carter adds. “And that sounds like a lot more fun.”
For those of us who began bartering in recent months, how can we integrate the practice into our growing, sourcing and eating habits? If you started a garden this spring, what’s the best way to share its summer abundance?
I turned to Erica Frenay for advice, who runs Shelterbelt Farm near Ithaca, New York, with her family. As a farmer in a rural area where many people produce their own food, bartering is a way of life for Frenay. For example, Frenay raises hens but sells most of the eggs, so she trades off-cuts of meat and vegetable transplants for fresh eggs from a friend. The pandemic hasn’t changed things much for her family and neighbors. “It’s as it was before, which means there’s a lot of bartering,” she tells me.
Frenay prefers to work out the details in advance—assessing the worth and amount of each item to exchange—so that both parties feel like they’ve made a fair trade. But some of her bartering friends “are really loosey goosey” about their trading practices. The important thing, she emphasizes, is to communicate what you’re willing to trade and for how much. “Everyone needs to be prepared to have honest conversations,” she says. “It seems to me that the most important thing is having a good relationship with someone, and having clear communication.”
Open communication paired with a perspective of generosity has kept Frenay happily bartering with neighbors and friends for years. “You can view it as transactional or you can view it as gifting,” she says. “And if you are gifting something to someone on a regular basis, it deepens the friendship.”
Chef Rhodes hopes this pandemic will shift people’s mindsets so they start viewing food exchange as a key to resilience, social connection, and cultural preservation. “Food is its own form of currency. Everybody’s looking at bitcoin, everybody’s looking for the big techno thing,” he says. “Innovation versus tradition—that’s the battle of our lifetime. How do we get new and stay old at the same time?”
If there is something good to be mined from the rubble of this season, perhaps it is this: we’re learning to get new and stay old all at once. By returning to the practice of bartering with neighbors and friends, we might just be innovating toward a more resilient, equitable food system.