It's 10 AM on a sunny Thursday morning at London's Roehampton University and while much of the campus collectively groans under the weight of a post-sports night hangover, a group of students are busy harvesting lettuce leaves in a cosy polytunnel in the corner of the campus. They work carefully, selecting the healthiest leaves and tending to fledgling plants.
"This mizuna is bloody amazing," announces one girl, thrusting a leaf at my face. "Try it."
I haven't a clue what mizuna is and until recently, 19-year-old zoology student Aicha didn't either.
"I thought lettuce was lettuce, really," she says. "But thanks to this group I can now name loads of different kinds of salad leaves. I've had more salad this year than I have in any other year of my life."
Aicha is part of Growhampton (see what they did there?), a student-led sustainability initiative that sees patches of the campus given over to beekeeping, chickens, and vegetable-growing in a bid to create a so-called "edible campus"—a trend gaining traction with student unions around the UK. More than 20 such growing projects have sprung up around the country in recent years, with enterprising students setting up veg box schemes, cafes, and farmers' markets to share produce with their student peers.
According to the NUS, over 80 percent of students want their universities to be more sustainable, so 25 grants from the Higher Education Funding Council for England have been given to institutions through the NUS Student Green Fund. Many, like Roehampton, have opted to spend the money on edible campuses.
Growhampton came to life two years ago and has since expanded from a couple of container pots in a car park to a campus-wide programme that sees students selling vegetables and free-range eggs at a central location every Thursday. Their "market" takes place just outside the Hive Café, an upcycled shipping container which sells local, organic produce and dishes made with Growhampton fare. Earlier this year, it underwent expansion thanks to £20,000 of crowdfunding.
"There was never any reason to stop in this area," explains Teresa Sheppard, Growhampton's development manager, as she surveys the now-bustling space between buildings. "It was just a thoroughfare for students but now the Hive Café is here it's become a really vibrant, important meeting place on campus. Because of that, students that wouldn't otherwise engage with food issues are exposed to a whole new type of food network. It's started a lot of important conversations."
David Somervell, sustainability adviser at Edinburgh University agrees, noting that food acts a leveller among students.
"No-one can say, 'Oh, I don't do that tree-hugging stuff,' or 'I'm not an environmental activist—I'm a language student,' or whatever," he says. "Food is something we all partake in, it's totally inclusive and a great entry point to sustainability issues."
Edinburgh is another student union welcoming food sustainability. Its Edinburgh Edible Campus group champions the grow-your-own cause despite minimal funding and development work threatening their green growing spaces.
"Every Wednesday and Sunday, there's somebody at the allotment sites," says Somervell. "It's extraordinary. There's always someone tinkering away, making compost, weeding, planting, and there's a very vibrant Facebook community surrounding it all."
Thanks to the influence of Edible Edinburgh, a dozen of the university's food catering outlets, as well as student accommodation services, have achieved bronze accreditation under the Food for Life catering standard.
It's not the only edible campus to receive recognition for its efforts. A similar initiative from Lancaster University's won Gold at the Royal Horticultural Society's It's Your Neighbourhood Award last year, while Coventry University's edible campus received a special award for innovation from the Green Flag Award Scheme, one of just nine parks and green areas in the UK to achieve this. Meanwhile, Loughborough's Eat Your Campus project won the Higher Education Sustainability Project prize at this year's Guardian University Awards, while the University of Bradford has been named the fourth most environmentally friendly university in the world, thanks in part to its edible campus programme.
"Compared to other edible campuses around the UK, ours is only a fledgling project, but it's a seed that's growing and germinating nicely," says Somervell. "We're very proud of the work we do, and so are the students."
It's a feeling shared by Roehampton students. The first container pots, placed directly outside the student union, would have made an obvious target for cigarette butts, beer cans, and drunken vandalism but there's a certain amount of respect for the work of the Growhampton team.
"Having the grow-your-own efforts displayed front and centre on the campus means people are really aware of what we do," says Sheppard. "The students take a lot of pride in that."
Similarly, Growhampton's resident chickens are kept in a large coop less than 10 yards away from the uni's student digs—the perfect recipe for fowl play on a Friday night—but if anything, local foxes present more of a danger to their welfare than the students, who are fiercely protective of their feathery neighbours.
"We don't encourage the Growhampton team to name the chickens because we want to maintain the difference between food and pets, but certainly the other students have informal nicknames for them," says Sheppard. "The chickens are a big feature on campus."
Getting down and dirty with a vegetable allotment also makes for a much-needed break from studying. Yes, the project helps to boost CVs—a not insignificant factor in an increasingly competitive job climate—but no one's here for the hard skills.
"A lot of university life is working hard and playing hard," says Aicha. "Growhampton gives us the opportunity to do something fun and social without going out and getting boozed up. But you can still do that—the fresh air is great for a hangover."
It's a sentiment echoed by 20-year-old business student Ben, who's developed something of a reputation among the group for turning up worse for wear.
"Don't have a hangover in a polytunnel," he advises. "It's the worst."
Ben has been a part of the Growhampton team since its beginnings and was attracted to the project because he "couldn't be bothered with the competitiveness and pressure of joining a sports team, but wanted to do something outdoorsy without exerting a lot of effort." He admits that while a lot of his friends take the piss ("They imagine I just sit at home wearing hemp and eating green beans") they're actually very respectful of the project.
"It's not really the sort of thing you associate with typical student life, I guess," he says. "When I came to university I didn't even know what salad was. And to be honest, my diet is still quite crap, but being involved in this has made me very aware of food miles and organic produce, and how mad it is to be paying so much for a bag of bland lettuce in a supermarket when it's pretty easy to grow something far tastier yourself?"
And he's right. The various leaves, lettuces, and even edible flowers the team enthusiastically thrust in my direction ("They're going to be 2016's kale," says head horticulturist Joel of the cheerful peppery nasturtiums blooming in abundance) pack a much greater punch than anything I've bought from Tesco. And at £1 for a 100 gram bag, it's cheaper, too.
"There are so many issues surrounding future food systems but we try not to focus on the negatives," says Sheppard. "By focusing on the positives, awareness of these problems comes naturally."
And as the Thursday market swings into life, the growing crowds vying for space at the Growhampton stall certainly suggest that this awareness is spreading.