At Homegrown Produce and Prepared Goods Exchange in Central Orange County, Everyone Must Swap

An array of items are available for swapping at the Central OC Food Swap in Santa Ana. (photo courtesy Sarah Whittenberg/Central OC Food Swap)

An array of items are available for swapping at the Central OC Food Swap in Santa Ana. (photo courtesy Sarah Whittenberg/Central OC Food Swap)

The main principle for an effective food swap? No looky-loos—everyone must participate.

“You can’t come and not swap,” says Sarah Whittenberg, who runs the Central OC Food Swap in Santa Ana, CA. “We want to make sure that everyone there is interested and engaged.”

At the Central OC Food Swap participants exchange homegrown local produce as well as canned and self-prepared goodies.

The brainchild of Whittenberg, Central OC Food Swap started three years ago. She recalls her excitement in fall 2012 when she read about a food swap in Seattle.

“I thought this was the coolest thing ever because I had just started canning—I was up to my eyeballs in canned stuff,” Whittenberg says. “When I heard about the food swap, I thought ‘this is for me.’”

Wanting to establish a food swap in the heart of Orange County but unsure of next steps to take, she reached out to Gillian Poe of Slow Food Orange County and Christina Hall of the Orange County Food Access Coalition (OCFAC).

“They were as enthralled with the idea as I was,” she says.

So enthralled, in fact, that Central OC Food Swap hosts its events free of charge at the OCFAC offices in Santa Ana. Whittenberg views this as central to the food swap’s success.

“OCFAC support is key,” she says. “We are so indebted to them for hosting at their space. I feel like I’m not doing this alone.”

Central OC Food Swap hosts about eight events per year. Those who attend are subject to strict guidelines. Each participant must register in advance, and everyone must come with a homegrown or self-prepared food item. They swap a large array of items, including fruits, vegetables, jams, eggs, home-smoked bacon, home-butchered chickens, and more. Some people also bring homemade beauty products to swap.

Another key tenet is that money never changes hands. Because it’s a swap, not a retail store, there is no need for oversight from Orange County Food Protection Services. Nevertheless, food swaps would not thrive without safe products to exchange.

“Food safety is of utmost importance,” says Whittenberg. “I talk to everybody about food safety.”

Safeguards for food safety include signing waivers that recuse Central OC Food Swap of liability, education on best practices, and the provision of information about FDA guidelines.

“Every swap uses similar waivers,” Whittenberg says. “No one has gotten sick.”

Whittenberg uses her background in marketing to spread the word to Orange County residents who may not know much about food swaps. Her No. 1 marketing tool is Facebook, and she also uses Yelp. She utilizes Eventbrite to publicize events and for registration.

Central OC Food Swap’s marketing efforts are not limited to the digital sphere, however.

“A lot of it is connecting in person with people at farmers’ markets and building relationships,” she says. “The more I market, the better the turnout is.”

Whittenberg says one of the first food swaps started in 2010 in Brooklyn, which led to a proliferation of food swaps from 2010 to 2013. Then came a decline.

“They started dying off because they were one-man shows with no collaborators,” she says. “Trying to do it themselves did not work.”

Hence Whittenberg would like to see more food swaps in Orange County. She knows of two others: the HB Food Swap in Huntington Beach and the Borderline Food Swap N.O.C. in Buena Park.

“I want more food swaps,” she says. “The more there are the better it is for all of us—it builds on itself.”

As for the Central OC Food Swap, Whittenberg would like to see increased attendance at its events. She also wants to reenergize people in the community about food swaps.

“I think we will continue to grow,” she says.

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