Exeter’s local food renaissance

A new community-owned venture in Exeter is boosting the availability of locally grown food in the city centre as it attempts to lead the city towards food self-sufficiency

The Real Food Store is one of the UK’s largest social enterprise schemes of its kind, having been financed with a £150,000 community share offer raised by nearly 300 investors.

Setting an example of how local food can be an affordable part of everyday shopping, the store is located just off the high street and stocks locally produced vegetables, meat, dairy products and preserves. The venture also has a take-away counter, a café, events area, and a local artisan bakery on-site.

The initiative began with seven people from a local group, Transition Exeter, who believe that in response to the rising environmental and financial costs of transporting goods, Exeter has the potential to be self-sufficient in fresh produce. They realised however that a key issue for local growers, farmers and producers is the lack of retail outlets for their products.

Launched in March, nearly 80% of the Real Food Store’s product range is sourced from within Devon. Shillingford Organics is based three miles away for example, and is the shop’s main vegetable and egg supplier. Emma’s Bakery, based on the same premises, supplies a variety of bread, including “the affordable loaf.” A range of local ‘cottage kitchen’ producers supply jams, chutneys and relishes.

“Our shop increases producers’ confidence that their goods are not just for farmer’s markets or delis, but are actually what people will buy on an everyday basis because of their taste, quality and affordability,” explains David Mezzettim, Real Food Store director. “Shillingford Organics is sowing and planting additional crops this year to keep up with Real Food’s demands.”

The store’s presence is a sign of an increasing interest in local food, David believes. “The return to the mainstream of local food is definitely becoming a consumer choice, particularly as the price comparisons with supermarkets are evening out.” To this end, the Real Food Store undertakes monthly checks and all their basics, such as bread, veg, eggs and milk, match the supermarket prices.

As part of its effort to boost the local food industry, the shop will be offering job and training opportunities specifically for young people. “They will learn retail skills as well as learning about ‘the story of food’,” explains David. “Volunteers will be given real mentoring, which we hope will stand them in good stead for employment in this growing sector.”

The venture’s focus is kept on social objectives such as these, thanks to its community ownership model, with 80 or more people regularly attending bi-monthly member’s meetings to feed back on the business.

“The business model enabled us to raise the capital required to set it up, says David, “but underlying that is the fact that people can see that business can be done differently.” There are no shareholders taking dividends he points out, adding that the store is focused on being a community space. “It’s a place for people to talk about what they’re buying; to find out where it comes from; to be enthusiastic about taste; to learn about seasonality for example.”

Exeter is rapidly becoming known for its community food initiatives. There is a mobile food shop, Love Local Food, which is complemented by an education programme for school children and families.

The area is also home to Broadclyst Community Farm, as well as Harvest, a city-wide scheme encouraging disadvantaged members of the community to grow their own food. At Shillingford St George, an area south of the city, Exeter Community Agriculture rents four hectares of organic land where families and individuals grow food collectively.