Wild and Curious at Growhampton
The urban forager has grown in stature in recent years. No longer is it considered a pastime for the generation of our grandparents, rather it is the savvy youth who are discovering the wild delights growing in and around our towns and cities. This resurgence stems from a growing urban food movement, in particular the demand for community gardens and action in positioning food at the heart of tackling our ecological crisis. There are more subtle reasons, however. For some it is the joy of discovering new plants, while for others it is to save a few pennies and stock up on berries for the winter months. Either way, the benefits are significant, to the extent that schools and educators are now incorporating foraging walks into the curriculum.
The Green Campus
Contrary to popular belief, the ‘concrete jungle’ of London is in fact the 5th greenest city in the UK, with 23% of it being green space. Scottish cities take the top spots though, with Edinburgh coming first, followed by Aberdeen and then Glasgow. Bristol, Birmingham and Sheffield are also some of the greenest cities in terms of parks and commons. Universities and colleges are nestled among this greenery, either through a campus or access to nearby common land. Although landscaped lawns and rose gardens still supersede biodiverse woodland and meadows on campuses, the tide appears to be changing as ‘rewilding’ gains momentum in urban areas, universities included. Foraging and rewilding have a symbiotic relationship by demonstrating the many edibles that biodiverse spaces create and support.
The University of Roehampton is fortunate to provide young people, staff and its local community more than 50 acres to explore, including pockets of woodland, an orchard, several lakes and close proximity to common land in Wimbledon, Barnes and Putney. Besides offering the chance to unwind from the demands of academic life, these spaces are also home to wild edibles including berries, elderflower, three-cornered leek and herbs.
Partnership and Action
For universities that sit within, or nearby green urban areas, harnessing the benefits of foraging for students requires highlighting the overlap between wellbeing, nutrition, physical health and environmentalism. This creates a natural partnership among stakeholders and the momentum to set up a project or initiative.
In the case of Growhampton, foraging is regularly included in the ‘Give It A Grow’ volunteering sessions, primarily to teach students the different edibles growing on campus - their seasonality and nutritional qualities, and how to prepare them in the kitchen. Students are taken on foraging trips in search of popular foods such as blackberries, rosehips, crab apple and wild garlic, among others, and then get involved in preserve-making sessions. This helps to support ‘This is Our Jam’, a student-led enterprise managed by Growhampton that focuses on selling value-added products such as chutney, pesto, cordial and tea made from cultivated or foraged foods on campus. The cooking sessions provide key skills development in food preparation and utilising surplus food that might otherwise go to waste. This is valuable for instilling healthy eating behaviours and showing climate leadership. By planting the seed it is hoped that our young people will then share this enthusiasm, knowledge and skill set with their families and peers.
For many student volunteers foraging is a highly rewarding experience:
“With days that are filled with technology and screen time, getting outside feels like an escapism of sorts, or much needed grounding. Working with the soil and picking wild foods gives me a feeling of connectedness with nature, followed by a surge of satisfaction. It is a much needed reminder that no matter how complicated our life seems to be, at the end of the day we are still a part of this ecosystem.” Sylwia Milos, second year business management student
Exploratory foraging trips are also centred on enhancing physical and mental wellbeing. Stepping into the undergrowth and woodland is proven to be a calming and beneficial experience, while moving around the grounds helps to keep students active and build awareness of different plants, wildlife and trees. Growhampton have forged close links with the University’s wellbeing team and sports department through a referral system, where students can immerse themselves in nature for an hour or two and boost their health in the process. With the rise in mental health challenges among students, foraging is an ideal and accessible activity that can either be enjoyed as a group or undertaken independently.
The changes to our day-to-day lives and current restrictions to indoor spaces, means that greening universities, either through more awareness of what already exists on campus, or rewilding, is a positive long-term step. Foraging is an invitation for students to connect at a time of great disconnection and an activity for universities and colleges to encourage.
Follow Growhampton’s wild foraging journeys on Instagram.
Read our Preserve to Sell handbook to find out how you could start a food preserving enterprise like This Is Our Jam. Or if you'd like help to set up an enterprise on your campus we offer a course through the Learning Academy.
Growhampton is part of the SOS-UK Student Eats enterprise programme, which is a member of the Our Bright Future programme funded by the National Lottery Community Fund.