Online communities drive food swapping for mums, cooks, gardeners

Creating a virtual village: Meals for Mum's Yuliya Tarasenko with her sons at home in Artarmon, Sydney.
Creating a virtual village: Meals for Mum's Yuliya Tarasenko with her sons at home in Artarmon, Sydney. Photo: Christopher Pearce

After a rough day you open the door to a stranger delivering a home-cooked lasagne. Need some fresh herbs? Pluck some straight from your neighbour's garden. Or perhaps you're in the mood for an old-school sponge cake – the kind you can't find in the shops anymore. No matter, just order one from your nearest home cook.

The way we source and buy food could be set for a shake-up if the latest crop of food-sharing communities is any guide. From a home gardener who sends email alerts across the suburbs when their citrus tree is fruiting to Facebook groups for stretched families in need of a feed, online technologies are fuelling a "sharing economy" for food-lovers.

Circle of mums

A NSW/ACT group called Meals for Mum, for example, launched on Facebook in October following the success of a similar community in New Zealand. Together they have nearly 20,000 members. 

The concept is simple – members can either ask for a free meal, or offer one. And despite the name, fathers, grandparents and other carers are welcome to join the group.

"It's built on the basic idea of paying it forward," says Sydney mother Yuliya Tarasenko, who runs the NSW page with Illawarra mum Stevie Puho and Phoebe Neelley from Canberra.

The diversity that's available in food is far, far greater than you would guess from walking into a store or supermarket.

"It's really about just helping out someone who's in need of a home-cooked meal right now.

"One day I could be the person cooking then the next week something might have happened and ... I need people cooking for me."

Where once your grandmother might have swapped stews or freshly baked bread, families are now able to use social media to create a virtual village, Tarasenko says.

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Members don't have to be in dire need to ask for a meal - they could simply have a busy week at work, be feeling a bit run down or dealing with big life changes such as a new baby, moving house or a new job.

"It's not an emergency service, it's just about good will – helping out when you can, not about straining yourself to do it. [So] if you've made double the food anyway you may as well share it."

Lalor Park mother-of-three Mandy McIntosh was one of the first to donate a meal via the NSW group – an almond, sweet potato, quinoa and zucchini bake to a family hit by illness.

"I liked knowing I could help someone out when they needed it," McIntosh says.

"Because the kids were with me when I dropped it off, I think it sets a good example for them of helping out others around you."

 

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Home cooks go pro

For cooks looking to sell or buy home-made fare, web start-up FoodByUs launched in August last year.

It operates much like an Airbnb for food, but with a strong community focus. Members can request meals tailored to suit specific events or dietary needs, be they vegan, gluten-free or allergy-friendly.

"There will always be that convenience of [takeaway food] but that's not what we're really about," says Ben Lipschitz, who created the service with former Menulog founder Gary Munitz and developer Tim Chandler.

"We really see it as empowering talented cooks with a risk-free way of starting their own business and starting to make money from their passion," he says.

From home-style Indian cooking to gluten-free birthday cakes, the offerings tend to be niche products best made to order. Food is free to list on the website or app but the platform takes a 20 per cent cut from each sale.

The cooks – so far about 300 in Sydney and 200 in Melbourne – must also abide by local food regulations and submit a sample of their cooking for taste-testing before being accepted for sale.

"The range of what they're making is huge, so anything from cakes and macarons to vegan banoffee pie through to Indian curries and Greek spanakopita ... then a variety of health food protein balls and health bars," Lipschitz says.

"It's what you want and it's tailored for you."

Neighbours share fresh produce

Grassroots project Ripe Near Me was created by Adelaide couple Alistair Martin and Helena Martin after they realised how much uneaten produce was going to waste across the suburbs.

Now with more than 25,000 members in more than 40 countries, the platform uses online mapping technologies to connect gardeners with home cooks. When a plant is ready for plucking or a tree is fruiting, the grower sets its status to "ripe", which sends out an email alert to followers.

Members can sell or trade their excess fruit and vegetables, but generally they give them away for free.

"A lot of the motivation for someone listing their produce is they don't want to see it go to waste," Alistair says.

For cooks, the community offers access to super-fresh, often chemical-free produce and tasty heirloom varieties not usually found in shops.

"You get a lot of those things that just aren't well suited to transportation to storage like mulberries," Alistair says.

"Then you'll get weirder things like loquats or guavas or cherry guavas, feijoas and crazy different varieties of tomatoes.

"The diversity that's available in food is far, far greater than you would guess from walking into a store or supermarket."

Food-sharing projects contribute towards sustainability and food security but often the most enjoyable part of the experience comes down to community, Alistair says.

"Everyone relays back to us that that was kind of the best part of it – just connecting with people and re-establishing community around backyard produce."

Tarasenko from Meals for Mum agrees. "It's more than just about food," she says.

"It's about having something that's cooked by another mum like you or another parent like you.

"Some of the mums who have received meals say it was a really tasty meal but it was more the thought that mattered – that was probably more special than the food itself."