At first glance, some students aren’t sure what to make of the futuristic-looking contraptions inside Cougar Woods Dining Commons.

“I thought it was a photography project because of the lights,” said sophomore Madalyn Weaver.

They are actually hydroponic garden towers flourishing with a variety of herbs and lettuce for UH chefs to use to create tasty new recipes. And it’s grown right in front of the students who will enjoy them.

“I don’t like when my food tastes freezer burned or artificial, so eating fresh is definitely positive,” said Weaver.

The two customized units each contain 16 panels and stand 5 feet high. About 144 pounds of produce, including lavender, sage, oregano, rosemary, thyme, parsley, cilantro and more will be grown in the towers every month. Hydroponic systems are as much as five times more productive than traditional farming, requiring fewer resources and reducing waste and pollution.

“This is a more efficient and sustainable way to grow plants, and it’s also less expensive. We can optimize the conditions so everything grows faster and better,” said Lauren Ross, director of wellness and sustainability.

Instead of using soil, seedlings grow in a sponge-like component as vertically mounted full spectrum lights provide fuel for growth. A reservoir at the base of the towers pumps water—containing a perfectly balanced pH adjusted nutrient solution—to the top where it slowly drips back down.

The hydroponic gardens take a local food sourcing initiative one step further. Chartwells, the UH dining service provider, guides managers to order from local farms in the state of Texas to reduce their carbon footprint.

“It doesn’t pollute the environment or our bodies. That’s important to me,” said freshman business student Eric Bitar.

As interest in organics and healthy eating increases among students, expect to see more plant based dishes and proteins, along with more vegan and vegetarian options throughout UH dining venues, according to David Riddle, Chartwells district manager.

“This age group is very interested in where their food comes from and how it’s prepared. It’s something we embrace.”