Campus Farmers Markets Sprout New Roots

      Posted On: November 1, 2009

by Sarah Johnson

As interest in sustainable food systems grows on college campuses nationwide, so do campus farmers markets, bringing college communities together while connecting them with local farmers. Campus farmers markets can play an important role in catalyzing support for agricultural academic programs and initiatives, grounding students’ classwork in real interaction with local food systems.

Yet, while college farmers markets can be tremendously rewarding for campus communities and local farmers, they can also face unique challenges by virtue of their on-campus locations.

Many of these challenges can be summarized by two words: red tape. Jessica Zdeb, who started a farmers market at Harvard while working as the Food Literacy Project Coordinator for Harvard Dining Services, says she felt like she was “talking to 25 different departments at the university”—and while they were all delighted by the thought of a farmers market, getting any of them to sign off on the proposal was much harder.

Zdeb recalls, “I always asked each administrator, ‘Who else do you think I need to talk to about this?’ And there was always someone else. To be honest, I don’t know if anyone ever said that they were the last person who needed to say yes, but eventually I just decided to do it.”

Dan Waxman, Sustainability Projects Manager for University Services at George Mason University, had a similar crash course in campus bureaucracy when starting a market at Mason, working with a laundry list of university offices including University Life, Student Centers, Human Resources, Events Management, Facilities, and more.

Waxman and Zdeb also found that the unique food needs of students and faculty impacted the design and operation of their markets. While many farmers markets are frequented by consumers who leave home with the express purpose of visiting the market—and thus have the shopping bags and transportation necessary to get their purchases home—students and faculty tend to filter through their campus markets on the way to classes and other activities. Purchasing a head of lettuce on the way to yoga at 10 AM can be a commitment to sitting with that lettuce as it wilts through hours of French conversation, economics office hours, and a cappella practice, only to return at night to a dorm without a fridge.

Having determined that demand for over-educated lettuce is not high, Waxman and Zdeb each discovered creative ways to tailor their markets to student needs. At the Harvard market, Zdeb encouraged fruit sales, realizing that while most students felt satisfied by the vegetable offerings at their dining halls, fresh fruit was often priced out of the dining services budget and offered a healthy option for students to buy and snack on throughout the day. Zdeb also started a vendor rotation system so that each specialty vendor only visited the market every third week, maximizing vendor sales per hour as well as the small market space by recognizing that “customers don’t need lavender salt every week.”

At George Mason, the outside market operator contracted by the university helped make the market more student-savvy by having vendors miniaturize their wares—for example, instead of selling large pies or bread loaves, they sell smaller turnovers and rolls students can easily carry around with them.

As a way to share these and other insights among campus market managers across the country, Waxman and Zdeb started the Campus Farmers Market Network, an email listserv for managers to give advice, vent about university bureaucracies, and build a campus farmers market community.

Zdeb says that one of the most important pieces of advice for wannabe campus market managers that she has learned from the network is that “the best thing a student can do is find a department in the university that will champion your cause.” Waxman echoes this sentiment and adds that planning ahead with all logistics, market promotions, rain plans, and scheduling can make the difference between success and failure—especially on campuses where the market is but one of a string of events scheduled at the same location on the same day.

Students interested in farmers markets might also considering starting small. Stanford University’s produce stand, grown out of a collaboration between student gardeners and Stanford Dining in 2007, operates from a single table outside of the student union, and the majority of its food comes from the Stanford community farm. The rest is supplemented by local, organic produce from the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association (ALBA), which generates opportunities for limited-resource farmers in Monterey County.

Although the market is smaller than most, Stanford student gardener Shila Soni notes that regardless of size, all campus markets help fulfill the same purpose: they offer a venue for students to learn and become passionate about gardening and local food systems, incubating the next generation of loyal market patrons or, even better, new farmers.

To join the Campus Farmers Market Network, visit