Student Eats – bringing the Good Life to university campuses
by Alice Wright
Vegetable patches and herb gardens are springing up on university campuses across the UK as students get involved with a food project aimed at sparking a passion for growing and eating sustainable, local produce.
Student Eats is run by the National Union of Students (NUS) and helps to develop student-led sites for growing fruit and vegetables on campus. In 2012, the project received more than £300,000 in funding from Local Food, a scheme that distributes money from the Big Lottery Fund to projects that help make locally-grown food accessible and affordable.
Since then, Student Eats has helped students on more than twenty campuses create their own growing sites, utilising poly-tunnels, greenhouses and raised beds, and provided gardening equipment and expertise. The volunteer gardeners then share the produce or in some cases sell it to generate income.
Agnes Knoll, Programme Manager for Student Eats, explains that the project was born out of a recognition of students’ increasing interest in sourcing food ethically and responsibly and their desire to learn about these issues in a practical way.
“I think students are coming at it very much from the angle of sustainability or food security, not necessarily coming from just a desire to learn gardening,” she says.
Nevertheless, whether they were keen gardeners to begin with or not, the students involved have enthusiastically got stuck into the practical side of cultivating and maintaining their growing sites.
Michael Lunn-Parsons, a second-year Politics student at Keele University, is one of those students who was drawn to Student Eats for ideological reasons around issues of sustainability, but has discovered a hidden passion for gardening.
“I really, really like growing veg now,” he says. “I’m the secretary of the society and I help with gardening sessions that we run every week on Fridays.”
The Keele group is currently concentrating on over-winter crops that will be resistant to frost, including onions, lettuces and cabbages. But Michael says he is keen to start introducing some more unusual produce too, such as different types of Indian herbs.
And Michael adds that he and other members have become so enthused by growing their own food that they are discussing setting up a self-sufficient eco-village once they graduate.
Student Eats has attracted enthusiasts of diverse ethnicity and the NUS is keen to see this reflected in the choice of what to grow on the sites.
“We encourage them to grow one or two crops that reflect their different backgrounds,” says Agnes. “Some of them can be easily grown outdoors in the UK, people just aren’t aware of it – for example fenugreek, which is used so much in Indian cooking.”
The groups have also had to take into account some rather unique challenges when planning how to manage their crops.
“Students are usually not there during the summer,” Agnes points out. “The growing year and the academic year don’t really coincide with each other. So they need to focus on things they can harvest before going away in the summer or when they come back in the autumn. They have also focused on recruiting people who are there in the summer, such as PhD and Masters students.”
Another challenge is the shifting nature of the student population – there only three or four years before moving on. So groups have been encouraged to form societies and committees so they can hand on responsibility to the next intake.
Funding is also limited so participants are advised to think about ways they can generate income. Some have started making jams and chutneys from their produce to sell. At Roehampton University, produce grown on campus is used in sandwiches sold at their student-led cafe, which also hosts a weekly farmers’ market.
Despite all these hurdles, Agnes says students at universities around the UK have achieved remarkable successes and the initiative has clearly got students excited and keen to take their projects as far as they can.
At Lancaster University students have not only established an “eco-hub” for growing fruit and vegetables, they also keep chickens, have planted herb beds and pots around the campus and are developing a “pick your own” area of fruit bushes.
Rob Brooks, a third year Physical Geography student at Lancaster, explains that he was drawn to the project both as a keen gardener and as someone who is interested in the environment. He is now employed on a part-time basis by Green Lancaster – which incorporates the university’s Student Eats project – to run gardening sessions at the eco-hub along with other tasks associated with the upkeep of the site.
The focus is on engaging as many students as possible, encouraging everyone to help themselves to the produce grown.
“It’s a community garden,” explains Rob. “Our idea is that they can then go away and spread the word about Green Lancaster and learn about the environmental benefits of growing your own food.”
In an effort to expand their reach, they recently held a cookery demonstration, showing students how to make vegetable curry. And they are planning another one focusing on desserts, using eggs from their chickens.
They also want to involve as many students as possible in deciding what produce they grow in the future. So far they have gone for quick-to-harvest crops like salad as well as stalwarts like potatoes, carrots and cabbages. They have also started to introduce some more unusual varieties, such as cucamelons – a grape-sized fruit that tastes like cucumber with a hint of melon and hails from Mexico and Central America – and different types of squash. Away from the eco-hub they have chosen herbs and fruit bushes for the additional growing sites because they don’t need as much maintenance as annual vegetable crops.
“When we started we didn’t really have a set plan of what we were going to do. It was very much let’s try this and see what happens. It wasn’t very structured. We’ve learnt from our experiences of what grows well and we’re hoping to develop a growing plan for this term and next,”says Rob.
He adds that just getting stuck in has been the best way to learn – “actually doing it and doing something wrong and learning from your mistakes. Like learning not to put cauliflowers too close to each other because they won’t develop”.
And as well as learning how to grow their own vegetables, students are picking up a host of other skills that will stand them in good stead in the years ahead.
“Working with Green Lancaster I’ve learned how to lead a group. I’ve learned how to problem solve, how to communicate better and how to work in a team –all of those things that are really useful. The range of skills and environmental awareness that you get from a project like this are really quite amazing.”
For further details :http://www.nus.org.uk/en/greener-projects/greener-students/student-eats/