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Welcome to the Culinary Barter Economy

COVID-19 has led to a growing number of people trading food like sourdough starter and flour with their friends and neighbors

An illustration of two hands exchanging beans and cookies Photo-illustration: Eater

Until about a month ago, Ari Koontz had never traded food with their neighbors in Providence, Rhode Island. But when Koontz decided to leave part of an extra-large batch of chocolate chip cookies on their neighbors’ doorsteps, they received cornbread and other cookies in return. “It was so wonderful to experience this kind of full-hearted reciprocity,” Koontz says — so much so that they began looking for more opportunities to trade. Soon, Koontz was running all over the neighborhood, swapping baguettes, sourdough starters, and pepper seeds for oranges, herbs, and dried beans.

At my own house, in Seattle, a recent Costco impulse purchase of a two-pound bag of active dry yeast quickly became worth its weight in gold. While I happily gave it to anyone who needed some, friends and neighbors kept asking if there was anything they could give me in return. I accepted leeks from a garden, homemade granola, and malt powder for making bagels.

Meanwhile, on Twitter, the television writer Jess Dweck joked that “2020 sounded like the most futuristic year and now we’re all like ‘I traded my neighbor a handkerchief for some carrots.’” More than 70,000 people liked the tweet — most likely because more than a few of them had been busy trading cloth masks for baking powder or bread for milk.

As people have tried to cut down on grocery store trips (and their associated anxieties) since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, trading with neighbors has become an easy, low- or no-contact way to acquire that one missing ingredient for a recipe, find suddenly elusive supplies like yeast, or share brownies that can no longer be brought to an office. And so the informal bartering and trading of ingredients and food has mushroomed, with people using social media networks like NextDoor, Twitter, and Buy Nothing to ask for that pinch of cinnamon or give away extra lemons. “Yeast is selling for like $30-$70 online — does anyone want to trade us yeast,” wrote Twitter user Tori Hinn, who prefaced the request with, “[A sentence I would have never typed one year ago].” In public Facebook groups, posts using the terms “barter” and “trade” during March and April increased more than 250 percent over the same time period last year.

“Barter already appeals to millennials and Gen Z,” says Julie Smith, a principal at the consulting company Point B. These generations, which make up about half the U.S. population, share dresses through companies like Rent the Runway and Armoire, swap baby clothing on Buy Nothing, and purchase resale or upcycled goods on Etsy. This predilection for sharing and reusing, combined with easy access to large groups of neighbors via social media, meant that bartering was already part of life for many in the U.S., and thus poised to catch fire long before the pandemic lit the fuse.

But the instinct to trade during hard times follows a deeply entrenched pattern of human behavior that reasserts itself whenever a country endures a large-scale change to its fortunes. “Uncertainty leads people to conserve cash,” explains David Ortega, a food economist at Michigan State University, citing such examples as hyperinflation in Zimbabwe and Venezuela.

While Ortega isn’t surprised that informal trading has grown in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic, he’s quick to point out that the pandemic is of a very different nature and scale than these other crises — and that its particular circumstances have created anxieties around food, not cash. “We are not running out of food,” he says, but the switch from eating at work, school, and restaurants to eating at home has led to shortages of certain items. “It’s not as easy as shifting delivery trucks from restaurants to a grocery store in a very short time frame,” Ortega explains. That, along with the tendency of many nervous shoppers to buy in large quantities, and supply chain disruptions related to sick workers, has created what are called stock outs. As a result, some people end up with plenty of flour or yeast, but miss other supplies that their neighbors have.

Still, Ortega says that the gaps in the food supply chain aren’t the only explanation for why we barter. By sharing access to food, he explains, people feel they can connect with a friend or neighbor. “You go to the store, then call a friend and say, ‘Hey, I found eggs, do you need any?’” Bartering, in other words, has provided a way for people to get closer to one another even during a time of required social distancing.

This kind of connection has resonated with Koontz, who was laid off from their job because of the pandemic. Trading has become “not just an act of kindness,” they say, but also — despite Koontz’s own lack of financial resources — “a way to feel like I was supporting my community.” For these reasons, they hope that the bartering trend is here for the long run. “Not just for me personally,” they say, “but [I hope that] our wider communities will continue exploring creative and non-capitalist ways to support one another in times of need.”

While Twitter users may joke about the novelty of bartering (insert Little House on the Prairie punchline here), the practice is hardly new to many communities. Rebecca Adamson, an Indigenous economist and the founder and former president of First Peoples Worldwide, a global nonprofit organization, notes that against the backdrop of the pandemic, “we can see the Western economy taking on the lessons or values of an Indigenous economy.” In the former, wealth is often synonymous with money, while the goal of the latter is for everyone in the community to survive and thrive.

Indigenous economies accomplish this through collaboration and cooperation, valuing “the collective efficacy of community,” Adamson says — “much like what we are seeing in the public response to COVID- 19.” While she laments the lack of traditional exchange networks in the market economy, she sees elements of them reflected in the efforts of many people to create barter and trade networks to provide child care, hair styling, garden and farm produce, gourmet foods, carpentry, entertainment, and more. “By mitigating the influence of cash in a community,” Adamson says, “the value of social benefits can be maximized.”

But bartering is generally a short-term fix in times of economic turmoil, Ortega says: When things get even worse, people turn to more extreme solutions, such as parallel currencies, which allow for more flexibility than direct trading. That said, he doesn’t think this new uptick will vanish anytime soon. And so he has a few words of wisdom for anyone interested in participating in the informal culinary barter economy. There’s a reason that “most people begin by trading with the people they know,” Ortega says: They trust that they’re not getting old yeast or spoiled milk. For that reason, he recommends that aspiring barterers also stick with people they know and trust. “Now,” he says, “is not the time to be paying a visit to the ER for a foodborne illness.”