Margus Menert with Exeter Veg Share jute bags

Student entrepreneurs cutting food miles and plastic waste with veg bag scheme

Student entrepreneurs are transforming the way their friends shop and eat – as well as helping to cut plastic waste and food miles – by growing and selling their own vegetables.

The campaigners, from the University of Exeter, have taught themselves to tend their own allotments in locations around the city and are also partnering with local food producers as part of the initiative.

More than 300 students now buy the veg bags, eating 150kg of locally grown food each week packaged only in reusable jute bags. Those who run the project, Exeter Veg Share, are learning gardening skills, which they are putting to use by improving public spaces in Exeter.

All the vegetables come from Shillingford Organics farm just outside of Exeter, and the offering is complemented by the students’ own grown microgreens from Exeter Community Garden on the University of Exeter’s Streatham campus and from donating produce from their student-run allotment by the River Exe. The students also sell local fruit and gourmet mushrooms with affordable pricing and are about to start selling locally-produced oats, flour and pulses. Their model for redesigning the food system on a local level allows best quality ecologically grown fresh and local produce become available at near wholesale prices.

The initiative has allowed the students to partner with other organisations in Exeter such as the St Sidwell’s Centre and Exeter Cathedral, and this month they will begin planting shrubs in the Cathedral Green as part of a joint initiative with the community centre to improve public spaces. Students from Exeter Veg Share planted trees with the University of Exeter Campus Grounds team took place last week in Exeter’s Hoopern Valley.

Students are working to transform a space near to the University’s Old Library into a roof garden for herbs, salads, edible flowers, beans and strawberries. They also hope to grow squashes and edible perennials on campus, and in city centre such as the Bishop’s Garden and the community garden of St Sidwell’s Centre.

Margus Menert, a postgraduate Food Security and Sustainable Agriculture student who leads the project, said: “We are mostly all mostly self-taught gardeners and started this project because we are passionate about reducing food and plastic waste and the distance food is transported. We also want to protect the environment and help to design the beautiful public spaces in Exeter and on our campuses.

“The sustainability behaviour change that we have been advocating focuses on transitioning from the current market-led “permanent summer time” driven food production and consumption habits towards increasing the share of ecologically produced hyperlocal seasonal produce.

“It’s been great to see how the project has helped encourage more students to cook rather than living off ready meals. It has also created wonderful links between students and fantastic food producers in Devon.”

The non-profit making project received start-up funding from the NUS Student Eats Programme and admin support from the University of Exeter Students’ Guild. Students buy a veg bag once a week for £7 which contains 3-4 kg of 7-9 types of seasonal vegetables. The students cut costs by buying produce in bulk and bagging it up themselves.

The project creates zero waste because bags are ordered in advance as and when people want to purchase, and some of the vegetables are “wonky” and would otherwise be composted.

A similar NUS Student Eats sponsored project, heavily modelled on Exeter VegShare, has just started trading at the University of Exeter’s Penryn campus in Cornwall.

Vinayak Kaul, a third year business student who works on the project, said: “We feel we’ve really educated other students about when vegetables are in season, and how it is possible to use less plastic. It’s revolutionised how they shop and cook. We are even now growing food from food waste – planting saved pumpkin seeds which should provide vegetables in the future. It’s also strengthened our links with the community.

In their first year 1,200 Exeter Veg Share bags have been sold, with students eating almost five tonnes of affordable organic or ecologically produced food.

Date: 3 April 2018

Read more University News