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For swappers, it’s share and share alike

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By Jialu Chen
Globe Staff / July 6, 2011

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SOMERVILLE - Six squat jars of strawberry-rhubarb-basil jam sit on a checkered tablecloth. Eight balls of mozzarella wrapped in paper rest on a red napkin. One large bottle of spicy pickles is nearby. This and other foodstuffs greet arrivals to the first Boston Food Swap.

The Boston area is one of the newest locations, over the past year, where a food swap has popped up. The first recorded swap was organized by Kate Payne in Brooklyn, N.Y., about a year and a half ago. Since then, swaps have spread nationally - from Austin, Texas, to Los Angeles to Honolulu.

The idea of a food swap, like the recent one in Somerville, is to give food to friends, who will give you some food, too. The informal exchange of home cooking is nothing new. But food swaps formalize the practice, facilitating trading between strangers and creating community. In this swap, the strawberry-rhubarb-basil jam is courtesy of organizer Lyn Huckabee, who first heard of food swaps in a New York Times article about the trend.

“The idea of community through trying new things and being creative interested me, and I wanted to bring the idea to Boston,’’ she says.

In planning the Boston Food Swap, Huckabee received help from swap organizers around the country, who connect with each other through Facebook and Twitter. One of the people who helped her is Emily Ho, founder of the Los Angeles Food Swap. Ho was inspired to start a food swap after she saw a video of one in Portland, Ore.

Though the Los Angeles swaps began only seven months ago, they regularly attract up to 50 people. Three other food swaps have started in other parts of the city to meet the demand. Ho, along with Payne, are putting together a website to provide resources for organizers and attendees, to help people find swaps in their area, and to share photos.

The first Boston Food Swap started with about a dozen people. According to Ho, swaps generally last about two hours and include setting up a display of wares, sampling food, signing up on swap cards (like a silent auction), and then making the swaps.

The food swap website encourages people to bring “something you made, grew, or foraged yourself.’’ As a result, participating in a swap puts you at the mercy of the hygiene standards of strangers’ kitchens, gardens, and foraging habits. Though this may seem daunting, the packages at the Boston Food Swap were obviously prepared with care and consideration.

Mostly, swaps foster conversations between like-minded foodies. At the Boston Food Swap, for instance, one participant complimented Jake Brenner’s pesto, and the ensuing conversation led to a discussion of olive oil-based cocktails. Brenner, who came across the swap on Twitter, is cofounder of Massachusetts Food Trader (www.mafoodtrader.org), which fosters trading among urban gardeners.

Huckabee was initially attracted to the idea of a food swap because she was already a member of a farm share and thought, “I have so much food leftover, it would be great to can my pickles and swap with someone else so I can have a diverse pantry.’’

Promoting camaraderie among people who care deeply about food is the mission of swaps nationwide. “The thing that I’ve really seen and learned through the food swaps is that it’s so much more than just the food,’’ says Ho of the Los Angeles Food Swap. “You think of it as a way to trade what you have for what somebody else has. But beyond that, it’s a community-building event.’’

Boston swappers seem to have the same goal in mind.

The next food swap is July 10, from 2-4 p.m., at Space With a Soul, 281 Summer St., Boston. For more information, go to bosswapjuly.eventbrite.com.

Jialu Chen be reached at jchen@globe.com.