Green grocer in Sheffield

Erratic alcoholics or green eaters of the future?

Students care more about the impact of meat than veg and don’t really understand organic. But they're also health conscious and ready to learn, finds Anna Zuurmond in her own research study.

So the results are in. This small study in Sheffield aimed to explore the percentage of students who shop organically and locally, and the barriers to them doing so (or not doing so more). To sum up briefly: organic’s benefits are not so well understood; it’s easier to care about chickens than courgettes; health is high in the student conscience; eco-labels cannot come soon enough; you’re a product of your peers and parents; and finally social media is dictating more and more your every food movement.  

Unsurprisingly, almost all students shopped for their fruit and veg in supermarkets. This was mostly a convenience thing, and it was only students who really valued their whole local fruit and veg store experience who took the extra time to go there. Otherwise, as one student put it: “Why would I go out of my way to buy similarly priced stuff?!”

It was generally interesting to see gaping differences on what students were prepared to spend. Some climbed the health hierarchy with spends of £15 a week on fruit and veg, but on the flipside, there were a couple of students spending grand totals of £2 or £3 quid by cruising down the Aldi frozen aisle.

Just under 50 per cent of the 54 students I surveyed ‘sometimes’ shopped for organic fruit and vegetables, and 40 per cent ‘sometimes’ shopped for fruit and vegetables based on their country of origin.

A student who ‘sometimes’ or ‘often’ shopped for local produce was also more likely to do so for organic, and vice versa. This supports other research, which essentially finds there’s correlation between consumption of the two – if you’re already delving a bit into your ethical conscience you’ll root around for other related issues as well. Veggies and flexis also more frequently shopped for organic and local than non-veggies.

This seemed to be because they cared more about the environmental issues generally, but, at a practical level, cutting meat meant they had a bit more budget and care to spare on their fruit and veg.  

Despite this being a generally pretty eco-aware student audience, benefits of organic were not so well understood. As a result, a number felt it was overrated, such as one first year who said: “Why would I spend double the money on something that I could realistically get for a lot less. Mainly the packaging is a bit nicer.”

Sheffield
Students make food choices based on health and price, as well as supporting UK farmers.

While we may see it as a pretty common term, there’s actually quite a lack of real understanding, and hence education is not yet redundant as a tool in promoting organic purchasing. Saying that, those that did get the benefits still felt unable to afford it. “You can’t really justify buying organic as a student,” one post-graduate contended. The key difference though is that these students did so when they felt able and aspired to do so given more means. Hence, changing perceptions now can change practices later.

“I assume that it’s more expensive, but maybe I’m wrong”, was echoed in multiple conversations, and local fruit and veg was often conflated with organic in being more expensive, even though extensive research has found that on average this is not the case.

While there was collusion between the two, students’ reasons for buying organic and local did diverge. In a greater proportion of students, the primary reason for buying organic was actually personal health over the environment.

While the student stereotype may be the erratic alcoholic, it should not be forgotten they are also the gym-centric and the health-conscious, and perhaps this a side that should be played to more by organic advocates. Meanwhile, for local purchasing, the primary reason cited by most was a desire to support local farmers followed by reducing air miles.

Students also cared far more about their beef and eggs than they did about their fruit and veg. Almost all students interviewed always bought free-range eggs, and a number who ate meat reflected carefully about where their meat was from, and how it was produced.

This pretty pertinent concern for animal welfare and quality of one’s meat and dairy, coupled with health and local farmers as the top reasons for shopping local and organic, shows how environmental causes are that bit harder for people to attach themselves to – especially with organic. The effects are simply less tangible.

As one student nicely framed: “Weirdly I think way more about eggs. I want [chickens] to be treated well. I care more about the lifestyle of a chicken than I do about the lifestyle of an aubergine.”

Perhaps the solution is to more effectively link these inter-related issues of environment, health, workers and animal welfare.

The thing is, if you’re going to change your habits, you have to really care – or it needs to be made really easy. “I do care about the farmer, I just haven’t thought about it much before. Like, I’m in the middle of my shop, I don’t spend ages looking for that information,” one said.

Multiple interviewees noted how, when placed obviously next to each other, they’d often buy the organic or local product over the non-organic or non-local product, even if it was a little more. Things have just got be made that bit more obvious.

All interviewees were very receptive when shown the new graded eco-label scheme currently being trialled in the UK, and, while there are still qualms about its measurement and implementation, this study contends that this would most definitely be a force for good in students.

Last but not least, students are products of their peers, parents and phones. Whether your mum’s always snapping up Aldi’s wonky veg, or your dad’s going fancy at the farm shop, you’re pretty likely to adopt or at least think about those habits.

As one student said: “My parents do care about all that stuff (local and organic), and so I do. It’s a mindset. It’s all wrapped up in that mindset of not valuing things; I’m not a penny counter. Parents of people I’ve lived with whose parents are financially astute, it’s clearly rubbed off on them.” Students are also co-living, and they do as their friends do. They follow their habits, and they also discuss their decisions.

And, of course, social media is having her part to play. While very few students shopped for local fruit and veg, almost all interviewees noted that they thought about it with avocados, and some actively tried to buy them less. This awareness seemed to have resulted out of the ‘avocado debate’ on social media, where the virtuous millennial veggie was ridiculed for guzzling too many avocados, which are high in air miles and are resource intensive. Interviewees also noted TikTok and Instagram as a source of a lot of information, including sustainable clothing and recipes. The market is there on social media, but it must be utilised.

So where does this leave us? Students remain a largely untapped target audience, and arguably they’re at a very malleable stage of their lives. Eco-labels should be fast-tracked, and supermarkets should have a role in increasing the visibility and availability of organic and local products in stores. Quite how we won’t go into, but policy must consider how to lower the price of organic products or support low-income consumers like students.

Most pertinently, however, conversations have to be started (and university could certainly have a role in this) to connect students, and others alike, to what they eat. Only then can care translate to consumption, and we might see anywhere near the kind of change we need in our food sector.

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  1. Fascinating. You might be interested to know that when I lived in Sheffield I did not have a veg box from any supplier because the fruit and veg I got from Just Natura,l (1/4 mile up the hill from my house) was just as good and could be got on demand – every day if need be. They are a wonderful greengrocers. When I moved away I couldn’t wait to sign up for Riverford and have been with them eversince (about 9.5 years!) Lots of the students also used them as we saw them shopping in there.

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  2. It appears to me that it is staggering that University students have such a low awareness of basic sustainability issues. All students at universities irrespective of what they’re studying should be given the basics of sustainability – climate change/global warming and its fundamental causes – fossil fuel use and biodiversity ecosystem loss degradation largely arising from industrial food production and fishing. Even within their lecture/tutorial packed timetable I’m sure they could squeeze an hour every 2 weeks to be informed of where our current lifestyle is taking the planet to extinction and us along with it.

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    1. Messages are largely good (although I would say there’s a bit too much opinion in there). The big question is how do we engage students in a way that they’ll get behind and feel passionate about?

      Personally i think it’s about empowering them rather than bombarding them with information. Maybe Wicked Leeks should run a university event with a student panel?

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