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Long Islanders turn to bartering to trade food, supplies amid coronavirus outbreak

What started as a way to limit trips to the grocery store quickly morphed into a way to connect with neighbors while maintaining the social distancing requirements. Randy Shain and his Port Washington neighbors on April 25 talked about their system for trading food dishes, grocery items, and gardening supplies with each other during the COVID-19 quarantine.  Credit: Yvonne Albinowski

A tray of eggplant parm set out on front steps, swooped up by a man in a mask. A bag of lemons and herbs draped over a decorative stone bulldog. Bottles of beer left on a porch, and fresh-smoked pastrami placed on a wooden bench. Flour and lettuce trading hands, albeit gloved hands.

Rather than some offbeat, covert food operation, these are the waymarks of a practice taking root on Long Island in recent weeks: The barter of goods and services among neighbors, what economists call “a coincidence of wants" — the wants of a store-avoidant but still hungry populace during a global pandemic.

SHOPPING LESS, NEEDING MORE

“I haven’t gone to the supermarket, and we’re always out of 15 things,” said Randy Shain, a one-man bartering dynamo who is the nexus of a trading ring in Port Washington. Bartering has “taken on a new sense of urgency," he said. "I’ve traded everything from coffee to dry herbs to Easter candy to homemade tomato sauce, and I’m up to 8 or 9 people.”

Shain’s neighborhood bartering circle has involved apples, flour, beer, cheese, pineapple juice, matzo, carrots, Easter candy, sloppy Joes, baked Millionaire bars and the occasional handmade mask, left on myriad porches and steps at a safe social distance. Shain, a longtime coach and mentor of high school and college-age teenagers, also frequently barters his counsel, too. “I’m almost delighted to do it — it’s kind of interesting to see what people have and what you can bring them,” he said.

A THROWBACK TRADE 

The practice of bartering goods (say, cattle, bread or salt) and services for someone else’s goods or services goes back to at least to 6th-century BC Mesopotamia, where bartering preceded metal currency. More recently, bartering flourished during the Great Depression in tandem with a dearth of paper currency in the U.S. 

While the Depression may be a distant and inaccessible memory for Long Islanders, bartering has continued here for decades — though mostly between businesses, including food establishments.

“Restaurants do a lot of bartering,” said Cheryl Mera, president of the American Barter Exchange in West Babylon, which her father founded in 1983. The ABE counts a lot of eateries among its 250 members, Mera said. “Their busy times are Friday and Saturday nights, so during the week they have empty tables, and they have the food in the house and they have staff, they think, why not barter for advertising, extermination or cleaning services?” 

Mera said that her firm saw a spike in bartering during the last recession of 2008-09, and she’s witnessing the same cycle now. “We are looking into setting up a barter exchange for individuals. We feel that with everything going on, there is renewed interest on the individual level.”

VIRTUAL CONNECTIONS

The person-to-person exchange has also long been common on Craigslist, where everything from guitars to motorcycle parts to cars are actively bartered. Even the food reporters at Newsday, and our friend and family circles, are in full barter mode: In recent weeks, I’ve bartered groceries for gloves and a toaster oven; my colleague exchanged yeast for flour. An out-of-work bartender I know bartered cocktails-to-go for home-brewed beer, a friend in Utah exchanged lasagna for dog grooming and another in Vermont has traded wine for face masks, at least twice (she has a good cellar). 

Closer to home, in Port Washington, Shain’s bartering began while talking to his friend Bari Pacht Siegel. “I started asking Bari’s advice on gardening, as I’d never done it before the pandemic,” said Shain. Siegel, in tern, gave him seeds and potting soil, and later, some homemade masks. “That’s how it all got started.”

TRADING AROUND TOWN

Siegel’s husband, Jeff Siegel, has a Traeger smoker, “and Randy ordered a pastrami,” she laughed, which she gave to Shain in return for ongoing mentoring for her college-age son (Shain had coached him in basketball for years). Rather than drive, Shain usually walks the four or so miles to Siegel’s house — “it happens to be a gorgeous walk,” he said — where he drops off and picks up goods from a weathered wooden bench a safe distance from Siegel’s front door.

“Randy is my main trading partner,” Siegel, said, calling his extended barter circle “a different kind of contact tracing.”

Shain has also traded homemade tomato sauce and sloppy Joes to Diane Luger, an art director who lives on Bayview Avenue and who, in return, tendered rolls, homemade eggplant parmigiana and Easter candy. “[Shain] told me he makes a mean Sloppy Joe, but hadn’t been able to get chopped meat,” said Luger. So she gave him some, and he eventually returned with a finished product. Luger said that though her neighborhood is close-knit, bartering was not a common practice until recently. “When all of this started to happen, [bartering] became a topic of conversation. You always have stuff you don’t realize that someone else is craving.” 

Luger might leave a bag of goods hanging on her doorknob, and Shain, in a mask and gloves, has left things such as homemade tomato sauce at the bottom of her steps. “We wipe everything down and he does too,” she added.

Tracy Lefkowitz, another barter-friendly neighbor, has traded with Shain and others, too. “Some days you want or need something you don’t have, and you don’t want to just run out to the store,” said Lefkowitz, a preschool teacher doing her work virtually. “It’s been kind of like, ‘anybody have a cup of bread flour,’ or, ‘does anyone have two rolls of toilet paper? I’ll give you a roll of paper towels,’ or ‘I have a delivery of five pounds of mesclun lettuce and I don’t need it all. I’ll give you two big bowls with if you give me some dried herbs.’”

Lefkowitz supplied Shain with fresh pineapple juice for his burgeoning sourdough starter; she also gave him lemons, olive oil and herbs. He, in turn, left M & Ms and that mesclun lettuce. “My son asked me if we’re just trading, and I said ‘no, not really,’” she said. “If you have the goods on hand always, then yes, but if you don’t have this or he doesn’t have that, and asks what don’t you have, and I’ll give to you in exchange for something I don’t have?” To Lefkowitz, that’s the foundation of bartering.

Another Bayview Avenue neighbor, Betsy Liegey, has bartered beer with Shain, who also counsels her son. (Liegey’s husband, John Liegey, is co-owner of Greenport Harbor Brewery in Peconic.) Liegey said Shain will also leave his wife Michelle’s confections, such as peanut-butter cups. “Before all of this happened, you always felt a little uncomfortable asking people for things,” said Liegey. “People are much more comfortable doing it now. It comes from a space of generosity. It’s, ‘how do we help each other during this time period?’” 

“It makes a big town feel smaller and more honey,” Lefkowitz said. “It does make you feel closer together, and have some sort of normalcy.”

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