What do you send a foodie pen pal — who you’ve never met — in Alaska?
I wanted to send items that represented Iowa. And, of course, the food had to ship well. Plus, there was the matter of a $15 spending limit.
So, there I stood in the grocery store, staring at the shelves.
I won’t admit how long I roamed the store, weighing items against each other. But I will admit I’m hooked on the program.
I’m not the only one either.
Nearly a year has passed since Lindsay Livingston of Columbus, Ohio, launched Foodie Penpals. In that time, she has seen the program expand from 30 participants in September 2011 to more than 1,300 in this month in the United States and Canada.
“It means so much,” Livingston says. “I pretty much consider this program my baby and it’s been so awesome to watch it grow.”
In fact, Livingston’s program is international. Foodie Penpals also exists among foodies in the United Kingdom, Asia and Australia. There’s even a South African branch in the works.
The program started when Livingston, a food and fitness blogger, received a box of goodies from a company to review.
“I randomly tweeted about how much I loved getting food in the mail and how I thought it would be awesome if I had some sort of pen pal that would send me a package of foodie treats every month,” Livingston says. “I got a few responses from some other bloggers I interact with pretty regularly saying they thought it was a great idea.”
The program is simple.
Submit your name and email to Livingston’s blog and receive a pen pal pairing via email on the fifth of the month. Participants have 72 hours to contact their pen pal to exchange mailing addresses and other information, such as food requests or dietary restrictions. They then have until the 15th of the month to mail a food package to their pen pal.
The food items can be local, homemade or the sender’s personal favorites. Packages are only restricted by the imagination — and the $15 spending limit.
The boxes must also include something handwritten, such as a note explaining the items in the box or a recipe.
“I think people really, truly enjoy shopping for food and putting their packages together,” Livingston says. “The program allows you to personalize your packages and send little pieces of you, your favorite things and your hometown to someone somewhere else in the country.
I’m a native Iowan, so I wanted my July Foodie Penpal — LaQuita McElmurry of Alaska — to have Iowa food. My package contained a bag of Tiny But Mighty popcorn from Shellsburg and a mix of spices from Cocina Del Mundo Herbs & Spices in North Liberty. McElmurry mentioned wanting to try kale chips in our email exchange, so I included a bag of those, plus a few fruit leathers.
“The food items you sent were perfect,” McElmurry emailed after receiving her package. “I finally got to try kale chips. They are really hard to find up here.”
McElmurry, also a newcomer to the program, mailed a package for her Foodie Penpal match in California. Like me, she wanted to share her state’s foods, so she included reindeer sausage, Alaska Chip Company popcorn and local honey,
The state theme continued with the food package I received from my pen pal, Miranda Robey in Tennessee.
“I chose the honey and the Goo-Goo Cluster because I just had to send something made in my home state,” Robey says. “I sent the yogurt covered pretzels, homemade zucchini bread and fruit leather because these are all things I enjoy.”
Robey also included a jar of homemade lemon-honey body scrub.
“I wanted to send you something other than food and what better thing to send than a homemade jar of body scrub?” she says.
Packages must be mailed by the 15th of the month so all participants will get their packages by the last day of the month when all the bloggers in the program to share what they received on their blogs
(Read more about my first experience at Gazette.com/Life under the Everybody Eats tab). You don’t have to have a blog to participate in the program, though.
“I think readers like the chance to interact on a more personal level with some of the bloggers behind the blogs they read every day,” she said. “For bloggers, it’s a great way to make other blogging friends and find new blogs.”
Livingston has even seen some pen pal matches evolve into friendships.
“Every month I hear from people who tell me they’ve been emailing back and forth with their match for the entire month, and that they’ve discovered they have tons in common,” she says. “I’ve also heard from people who end up living close to the person they get matched with and they’ve met in person and become friends in real life. The fact that such a simple program can bring people together like that is amazing to me.”
Visit Lindsay Livingston’s blog, The Lean Green Bean, at Theleangreenbean.com and click on the “Foodie Penpals” link to get started.
On twitter? Follow Livingston at @LeanGrnBeanBlog and find other Foodie Penpals through the #foodiepenpals hashtag.
Not sure what to send? Visit past Foodie Penpals reveal days on Livingston’s blog to see what other foodies have received.
“I love all the homemade things people send me,” Livingston says. “The most unique item I received was probably a CD of songs my match made for me to listen to while I was busy in the kitchen. I loved it.”