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130+ Universities Join Movement to Measure Sustainable Dining on Campus

As millions of students receive their college acceptance letters this month and prepare to make one of the biggest decisions of their lives, Real Food Challenge is proud to announce that 134 colleges and universities are now participating in a national, student-designed program—called The Real Food Calculator—to measure and report sustainable food in campus dining.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

While quality of cafeteria food has long been a factor in students’ perceptions of campus life, a majority now include a concern for institutional sustainability as a factor in college decisions.

“Increasingly we're finding businesses that understand millennials' desire for transparency, authenticity and honesty in marketing—especially when it comes to food,” explains Anim Steel, executive director of Real Food Generation, the program's sponsor. “What's missing are concrete tools and hard numbers to help institutions keep up with an evolving customer base. The Real Food Calculator fills that gap.”

The online tool allows schools to aggregate thousands of food purchasing records and assess their institution’s "real food" score. Student researchers then grade products against a comprehensive set of third party-verified standards for local, fair, ecologically sound and humane food. When completed, The Real Food Calculator offers concrete data on how a campus is currently supporting their community through their food choices—and how they can improve.



The program has won numerous accolades. David Schwartz, who helped develop the Calculator as an undergraduate at Brown University, was recently named one of Forbes 30 under 30 for Social Entrepreneurship, as well as honored by Variety Magazine and VH1 for his work. The Calculator has since been adopted nationwide.

University of Louisville Anthropology Professor Jeneen Wiche, herself a grass-fed livestock/poultry farmer, explains her motivation for joining the program: “The Calculator allows a behind the scenes glimpse of the food system that feeds the University of Louisville. Campus food is what fuels our students, but it can also help support entrepreneurial local food enterprises. The Calculator will allow us to applaud what is being done well and troubleshoot where we fall short. The students become the driving force behind reform.”


With the national rollout of the Real Food Calculator this year:

  • 134 universities have joined the program—including Johns Hopkins University, Brown University, UC Berkeley, Indiana University and UNC Chapel Hill
  • More than 600 student researchers have reviewed more than 84,297 unique products and $71,059,505 worth of campus food purchases to see if they meet the rigorous "real food" standards
  • The average participating school spends $5.18 million on food each year, an average 15 percent of which currently qualifies as "real food"
  • 22 schools who participate in the program have also signed the Real Food Campus Commitment—a pledge to increase their real food percentage to 20, 30 or 40 percent by 2020

“This has been an incredible learning experience for students and dining, alike,” said Anna Hankins, a freshman at University of Massachusetts-Amherst. “Using the Calculator, I can now tell you that 81 percent of my school’s seafood comes from sustainable fisheries. And we now know that, compared to other universities, we could source more fair trade items, such as rice—the item we buy the most of. A switch like that would have an exciting economic impact, as well as serve as a campus wide educational tool.”


The Real Food Calculator has been buoyed by the public endorsement of major food service companies Bon Appetit Management Co. and Sodexo USA, which together manage outsourced cafeterias at more than 700 colleges and universities nationwide. Chartwells, one of their primary competitors, has yet to endorse the program.

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