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Deli-dollar offers route to business funding

PASTRAMI ON rye might not sound like an alternative to hard cash but in one American town, sandwiches are replacing dollar bills.

Frank Tortoriello runs a deli in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. In 1989 he wanted to move to larger premises but the bank would not lend him the $4,500 he needed, so he simply printed his own money.

He did not forge dollar bills - he launched "deli dollars" which customers could buy for $8 and, at phased periods, cash in for $10 of food. He sold the lot in a month and raised $5,000. "Frank's customers were backing his loan because they felt they were helping him beat the bank and he was paying them back in sandwiches," says David Boyle, an alternative economist who details many other new forms of currency in his book, Funny Money. Something strange then happened - the deli dollars started acting like real money.

"Parents passed them on to their student children to make sure they were eating properly," said Mr Boyle. "Employers passed them to workers as Christmas gifts. "The minister ate at the deli and soon notes started turning up in his collection box. Even the bank which refused Frank a loan in the first place circulated deli dollars."

Frank Tortoriello's story has a feel-good folksy air to it, but alternative currencies are now used by major companies through customer loyalty programmes, phone cards and air miles. "Suddenly everybody is issuing their own money," said Mr Boyle. "Take air miles - this is a currency issued by airlines which you can spend on an array of goods and services and which disappears when you've spent it. It doesn't carry on in circulation; it just gets deleted."

In the US, bartering between businesses and professionals is now worth $8bn a year, say the futurologists Ira Matathia and Marian Salzman, of the consultancy group Y&R Brand Futures. They add: "At the centre of the industry - which is growing at 15 per cent a year - is the National Association of Trade Exchanges, an association of business owners and professionals who have joined together to trade surplus goods and service."

Ms Matathia and Ms Salzman believe bartering will grow because the Internet has opened once-unthinkable global trading possibilities. But new money does not have to be about business. Community groups are involved. A Washington law professor, Edgar Cahn, was responsible for the launch of "time dollars", based on volunteer help in the community. Individuals register with their time dollar project what work they will do - from roofing to driving someone to the shops - and the things they need done in return.

"You can spend your time dollars on services from other people in the system," said Mr Boyle. "Or you could give it to an elderly relative who might need it more. Or you can keep it for a rainy day."

Time dollars or Lets (Local Enterprise Trading Systems) are now used in the US, UK, Germany, Japan, New Zealand and Australia. In the UK, there are 450 Lets networks with 40,000 members. The London borough of Greenwich has a full-time Lets development officer. Lets members offer everything from gardening to massage. Liz Shephard, of LetsLink UK said: "Lets offers a unique form of self-help and mutual aid, encouraging people to exchange services, time and occasional goods on an equitable basis."

The system is not without problems. The Department of Social Security has indicated credits earned through Lets should be treated as having monetary value for the purposes of calculating state benefits. Lets is lobbying the Government to clarify the situation.

Another potential problem is that the services on offer may be limited. Sarah Fox was involved in a Lets scheme. "It was all a bit fey and hippie- dippy," she said. "It was great in theory but there are only so many massages that you want. I needed a decorator and someone to lay a patio but no one could offer that."

But Mr Boyle said: "There are Lets schemes in many countries and if Lets wasn't useful, people wouldn't join." He believes society is over- reliant on money, which can disappear overnight. "We need to underpin our lives by experimenting with new kinds of money, with different values embedded in them, which are more reliable in difficult times," he said. "It worked for Frank Tortoriello."

Funny Money: In Search of Alternative Cash' is published by HarperCollins at pounds 14.99