Campus Local Food Subscription Case Study: Brown Market Shares Program

Danielle Walczak, Farm & Sea to Campus Communications Intern


Brown Market Shares Program began by offering subsidized shares to Brown Dining employees. In the program’s ten years of operation, it still offers subsidized shares to various Brown University employees while making sustainable food more available to the Brown community and supporting a handful of local farms. The Brown Market Shares Program (BMSP) hosts over 400 shares while offering shares that are 10 percent cheaper than than the average CSA share in Rhode Island.

All photos were provided courtesy of the Brown Market Shares Program


Institution Name: Brown University

Institution Location: Providence, RI

Number of Students: 9,073

Percentage of Students living off-campus: 22 percent

Meal Plan requirements:

  • Required for first-year students
  • 75 percent of upperclass students participate


Organization Name: Brown Market Shares Program (BMSP)

Organization Location: Brown RISD Hillel (on Brown campus)

Number of Employees: seven student volunteer coordinators, around 50 volunteers, blog and photo team, and program development team

Distance to Farm(s) That Support The CSA Program: 5 to 30 miles

Names of Farms: Allen Farms, Big Train Farm, Freedom Food Farm, Hill Orchards, Wishing Stone Farm, Langwater Farm, Pak Express Farm, Pat’s Pastured, Narragansett Creamery, Rhody Fresh, Sweet & Salty Farm, Seven Stars Bakery, RI Mushroom Company, Barden Orchard, Schartner Farm   

Structure: Student-run, locally grown produce from many farms with common pick-up and subsidized share option.

Cost: Pay in advance with weekly and monthly payment plans possible.


  • Full Vegetable Share: $220/season ($20/ week)
  • Full Egg & Dairy Share: $162.25/season ($14.75/ week)
  • Full Bread Share: $55/season ($5/ week)
  • Full Meat Share: $100/season ($20/ every other week)


In 2006, the Brown Market Shares Program (BMSP) began when students received a social innovation grant through United Natural Foods Inc., to provide subsidized shares for Brown Dining employees for one growing season. As the program grew, the focus incorporated both regular and subsidized shares and expanded to include graduate students, faculty and staff of Brown University. The program now has more than 450 shareholders, and in the 2015 season they had 198 subsidized shareholders.

Currently, the BMSP is the only college campus designated as a USDA recognized food hub.

The BMSP has three core values which encourage more and more volunteers to get involved:

  • Promote regional farm security
  • Provide equitable access to sustainably-produced food
  • Foster on-campus engagement and activism

A goal of this program is to make, fresh, local and sustainable food available to all people in their community. Due to BMSP’s location on campus they eliminate transportation barriers so many members of the Brown community can participate in the program. Additionally, the subsidized program “allows low-income faculty, staff, and graduate students to participate at a lower cost, further breaking down obstacles to access,” according to the program’s website.  

To foster campus engagement and activism, Market Shares creates an “opportunity for students and campus members to make a political statement through the purchase of their food,” according to the program’s website. Market Shares also has other on-campus programs. They find that students who take academic courses, such as Urban Agriculture and Local Food Systems, and an environmental science course, which discusses topics such as local food, subsidies, mass agriculture, food labor, farming techniques, CSAs and food hubs, often end up volunteering with BMSP.


Since 2011, the student-led program has offered shares for three seasons out of the year (fall, spring and summer). BMSP’s three share seasons are structured around the academic year: fall (September to December), spring (February to April), and summer (early June to mid August). Each subscriber gets food once a week for 10 to 11 weeks per season.

Shareholders pay in advance for a share, which they pick up on a weekly basis throughout the season. BMSP differs from traditional shares in that their products come from five to ten farms within a 20-mile radius of Brown’s campus.

“Our model allows shareholders to support numerous farms through their membership, reducing competition by more widely distributing consumers' purchasing power. Additionally, it means our shareholders receive a greater variety of produce year-round than they would in other CSAs.” -BMSP website 

Each weekend (Friday to Monday) the CSA's purchasing coordinator calls farmers to determine what the list of available products are that week, purchases items from the farms, and then determines the share (usually seven to eight items) dependent upon weekly availability. The purchasing coordinator negotiates on an individual basis with the farmers. Farmers drop off the food on Thursday morning. BMSP volunteers set up “Market Day,” where shareholders come and pick up their shares with their own reusable bags. Produce varies based on the season.

Each week BMSP sends an email to the shareholders outlining what will be in their share as well as hints or ideas about preparing some of the produce.

“We take great pride in the vibrant community that develops each season during Market Day, as coordinators, volunteers, and shareholders interact and learn from each other.” -BMSP website

BMSP coordinates with Brown Dining Services, which helps donate leftover produce after the market, and Brown University donates free space and a financial office space to BMSP, but the program is primarily student operated. With increasing shareholder interest, the program’s roots in subsidized shares are a big motivation to keep the program going for members of the Brown community.

(Credit: Brown Market Shares Program) 

Subsidized Shares

The core of Brown’s Market Shares Program revolves around providing subsidized grants to its constituents. Subsidized shares were originally offered at two different income levels to Brown Dining employees. The program expanded to include other campus staff like secretaries, library workers, and research assistants. Recently, the program began offering subsidized shares to graduate students. Currently, BMSP doesn’t offer subsidized shares to undergraduate students because Brown’s financial aid includes meal plans. Therefore, determining need becomes complicated. Instead they focus their resources on Brown staff members and graduate students.  

In order to offer two different levels of subsidized shares, the program raised the cost of each non-subsidized share. Market Shares is able offer low-price shares using cross-subsidization because they have extremely low overhead costs and are run by volunteers. In internal cross-subsidization, there is a higher price point for the normal share, which helps cover the cost of the subsidized shares. Full-price shareholders still pay 10 percent less than the average price of a Rhode Island CSA and comparable Brown CSA items cost 17 percent less than similar items at a nearby grocery store, according to the BMSP website.  

When the subsidized program began, shareholders made donations for subsidized shares, which helped the program expand. According to Market Share’s website, “Between the fall of 2010 and the fall of 2013, the proportion of our shareholders receiving subsidized shares rose from 24 to 33 percent – a 75 percent increase.” During the past few years, subsidized shareholders have grown exponentially.

BMSP offers three levels of pricing: a low-cost share, a middle-cost share, and a full-price share. The low and middle cost shares are available to Brown staff, faculty and graduate students. Applicants calculate their eligibility using the table below and self-report their share level.

(Credit: Brown Market Shares Program) 

(Credit: Brown Market Shares Program) 


BMSP works primarily with sustainable farms, although not all the farms they purchase from are certified organic. However, the program’s purchasing coordinator goes through a process to deem a farm as acceptable. All the farms for BMSP fall into three categories: certified organic, chemical free (sometimes avoiding organically certified sprays), and integrated pest management (IPM). When the purchasing coordinator makes contact with a farm hoping to work on a long term-basis, they first look into online information about the farm. If the purchasing coordinator feels the farm aligns well with the program and mission they set up a farm tour. On the tour, the purchasing coordinator looks for things like: (1) Does the storage and packing area seem clean? (2) Do the workers seem happy? (3) Does it look like they are following chemical free/organic practices? They also ask about their growing practices (crop rotation, sources of fertilizer, what they’re growing, what’s been done with the land in the past, etc.) If the farm is a good fit, BMSP will start purchasing from them.


Apart from the seven student coordinators who coordinate the program, BMSP operates with the help of 50 volunteers. To garner their support, BMSP advertises on campus, and offers an incentive of one share item (i.e. one pound of sweet potatoes) each week for one hour of work to its volunteers. This past season they had to turn away 20 volunteers because they had so many people who wanted to help.

Farmers & Businesses

Initially, BMSP formed relationships with farmers through an on-campus farmers market, and now farmers approach the organizers of the program with hopes of joining. The program has a purchasing coordinator who interacts with all the farmers.

BMSP works with about 15 farmers and businesses throughout each season. One of the BMSP farms, Big Train Farm, reports that 9.2 percent of their sales come from the BMSP, which they consider an excellent and reliable account. The most challenging part for Big Train Farm is BMSP’s seasons, which correspond with the school year more than the growing season.

Freedom Food Farm considers BMSP to be a major part of their business, supplying between 10 and 30 percent of their total yearly sales. These sales are important for Freedom Food Farm because BMSP is willing to pay a slightly higher price than the farm’s other wholesale accounts. In past years, they tailored their production to meet BMSP’s needs by meeting with the BMSP coordinator before the season began. According to Chuck Currie, a farmer at Freedom Food Farm, the last couple of coordinators chose not to go the tailored production route. However, Currie still offers them anything they have in the quantities BMSP needs.


Brown University contributes about $200 per semester to the program, according to Bella DuMond, the program's PR coordinator. In addition, the program uses free space at Brown/RISD Hillel on campus, in the same way that most campuses do for student groups. The program had around $125,000 revenue from shares this past season. The program has low overhead costs because of the free space and because they have so much volunteer support. A small portion of money is taken out of each paid share and put into the operating budget. The program also does some fundraising. BMSP received three different fellowships to stipend student work and a Brown Student Agency Inspire Grant, which helped improve infrastructure. Combined, the program is able to put 91.3 percent of the revenue they make directly back into the local food economy.


Acoording to DuMond, the program requires a lot of coordination and effort. “You have to be extremely passionate about what you do,” she said. “But it is also extremely rewarding. You need to get a group of passionate people around you to help.”  

Wesley Herts, the program development coordinator, said the importance of building strong community in a food distribution system is an important lesson. Herts explained that once the program became well established, shareholders expected a level of reliability in the program and its services. “It can be tempting to want to keep very strict policies in your business as you experience growth and change,” Herts, a junior computer science major at Brown said. “This can help maintain a consistent experience for shareholders over many years of participation, even as volunteers and coordinators change. The strictness of the system can easily lead to a lack of relationship between volunteers and shareholders.”

He notes that one of the biggest advantages of BMSP is its location on a college campus. “This means that, if a friend, T.A. or professor forgets to pick up their share or needs a special accommodation one week, we can provide that because our relationship goes beyond the program.” Herts said the multi-level relationship members of the program have with shareholders is something that is crucial to maintain.

“Many shareholders have my personal cell number and feel comfortable calling or texting me with questions or requests if they aren't able to pick up their share that week. I think this is one of the things that makes BMSP different from other food distribution programs,” he said.

Note: all photos were provided courtesy of the Brown Market Shares Program. 





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