The new farmers market opened last month to rave reviews
When the Blue Devil Market opened at Duke one afternoon in October, Jill Solomon felt a cautious optimism.
“I expected a good turnout, but I expected it to roll in slowly,” she recalled. “Maybe we’d have 300 people over two hours.”
Her team counted 300 students in 20 minutes. By the end of the afternoon, more than 550 Duke students had scanned into Clocktower Quad to collect free produce, including fruits and vegetables sourced from North Carolina farmers.
This new program, free and open to all Duke students for the first time, aims to expand students’ access to fresh, healthy foods on campus. The runaway success of the Blue Devil Market’s debut is a testament to Jill Solomon’s leadership, as well as the importance of investing in our Student Affairs staff.
A question of access
“Where is the fruit?”
Jill Solomon couldn’t count exactly how many times she had that conversation with students or other staff members, but it was becoming a refrain during her time as Residence Coordinator for Keohane and Wannamaker Quads. From lunch trays to tables at extracurricular events, she noticed a consistent lack of fresh fruits and vegetables in students’ diets.
She had a hunch this wasn’t due to lack of appetite. After all, up to 35% of U.S. college students have experienced food insecurity, a rate which significantly exceeds the national average of 12.2%. This means that college students are more likely to have limited access to the varied ingredients necessary for maintaining a healthy diet. Over time, this lack of access leads to decreased mental and physical health, and it can have downstream impact on academic performance as well.
A quick survey of students’ grocery options confirmed Solomon’s suspicions. The cost of buying enough fruits and vegetables to meet the recommended dietary guidelines was prohibitive for many students. Her question about the fruit suddenly became a question about access: how could she find ways to lower the financial barriers to healthy eating?
The Keohane Market – an early experiment
Solomon began to imagine a free farmers market, where Duke students could pick up fresh produce and get connected with resources to support their physical and mental health. In the fall of 2022, she organized three pop-up markets for students of Keohane, Edens, and Hallows. These early markets were an all-hands-on-deck effort – Solomon bought produce from Costco herself and recruited help from RCs, students, and on one occasion, her mom!
Two features of the Keohane Market emphasized a holistic approach to student health. First, Solomon selected dorm-friendly recipes to hand out at each event. These meal prep guides helped students refine their culinary skills while learning how to balance their diets on a budget. Second, Solomon invited staff from other Student Affairs teams to set up resource tables, connecting students to campus services related to that month’s assigned topic.
The experiment was an immediate hit with students. Averaging more than 70 attendees at each pop-up, the Keohane Market drew over 100 Blue Devils to its December showing. The message was clear: when financial barriers are lifted, students are enthusiastic about cooking with healthier ingredients and eating a more varied diet.
Building a team
Solomon immediately began brainstorming how she could bring the Keohane Market to the broader Duke community. She applied for the Heaton-Blackshear Innovation Grant, a new grant that funds innovative, community-focus programs designed by Duke staff members. In June, her proposal for a Blue Devil Market was selected as one of the award’s inaugural recipients.
With an expanded budget and team, Solomon reached out to the Durham Farmers Market and the Black Durham Farmers Market to supply fresh produce for the campus markets. If she could connect students to healthy foods while supporting local farmers, she thought, all the better.
Solomon also recruited additional team members, including Calvin Rausch with AmeriCorps’ Hunger Corps VISTA program. “The idea was incredible, the volunteers were genuine, and the mission was impactful,” Rausch remembers. “It was an easy ‘yes.’”
Rausch began analyzing available produce, identifying sources that would allow Solomon to purchase in-season foods as cheaply as possible. Jordan Buie and Carson Flynn, Residence Coordinators for Edens and Kilgo Quads, were also instrumental in coordinating the market’s logistics.
“In my experience, Duke has many students that really struggle to stretch their points to last through the year,” explained Flynn. “It’s not always clear what students are supposed to do in these situations, and it can be very challenging and dehumanizing for some students to navigate.”
Opening the market
The team’s work paid off on October 18, when the Blue Devil Market opened to a buzzing crowd. “About twenty minutes into the event, one of our volunteers came over to me and said we were running out of punch cards,” Solomon recalled. “I was thinking, ‘There is no way!’”
But the volunteer was right. Over the next hour, her team distributed fresh groceries to more than 550 Duke students on Clocktower Quad. Students were also able to connect with staff members across Student Affairs and learn more about health and wellness resources.
“Access to fresh produce is a frequently forgotten pillar of adequate nutrition,” Rausch remarked. “Allowing Duke students to take home an assortment of fresh produce for free broke a lot of barriers for a lot of students.”
Flynn was thrilled with the turnout as well. “We had tons of good conversations with students and many other administrators, and our team felt that we put on a really stellar event that we had no blueprint for how to do.”
Planning the next steps
Using survey data collected from attendees, Solomon looks forward to improving the Blue Devil Market and hosting additional pop-ups in the future. Her team will coordinate smaller markets in the residence halls through the rest of the calendar year. There will also be another campus-wide market in the spring semester. Each of these events will be announced on the Student Affairs social media accounts, and they will be shared as events on DukeGroups.
If you would like to get involved in helping with the Blue Devil Market, please follow Student Affairs on Instagram and the Dean of Students account on DukeGroups. All future opportunities will be posted on those two channels.
In the meantime, Jill Solomon is celebrating the success of the campus-wide launch. “Speaking to students during the program and seeing how happy the staff and partners were to be there and participate will be a core memory I have forever,” she remarked.
“I am overcome with joy, pride and gratitude for the opportunity to bring my vision to life and contribute to my community at the same time. As a young professional, this is a dream.”