Performing the Real Food Calculator

Introduction and Overview

Starting and executing a Real Food Calculator assessment is a complex and rewarding process. This procedure manual lays out step-by-step guidelines to guide you.


Step 1: Understand the Real Food Calculator (2-3 hours) 

Get a decent understanding of exactly what the Calculator is, its purpose, and how it works. This will benefit you greatly during meetings with faculty, staff, and other students. 

Step 2: Contact the Real Food Challenge (15 min)

Contact us at to let us know that you're interested in running the Real Food Calculator!

Step 3: Determine the Scope of the Project (2-5 hours)

Figure out how big your research team will be; how large your assessment will be; and whether you'll get academic credit, internship credit, or even get paid to do the Real Food Calculator.

The Research Team

Decide whether you want to do the Real Food Calculator alone, in a pair or in a group.  Consider how the size of your research team will affect the speed of your project. Many students prefer doing the Calculator in a small team (2-5 people). 

Structure & Recognition

Real Food Calculator Research is hard work, and your work should be recognized! Here are some examples of how to build the Calculator into your school year.

Getting Paid for running the Calculator

  • Many students have created or held an internship or paid position in the sustainability office, dining office, or other campus department, in which they can complete the Calculator
  • You may want to consult with dining staff, a professor, or other offices on campus so they can help you understand what is feasible and how much your school will be able to help you out.

Getting Credit for running the Calculator:

At its heart, the Calculator is a research project. By arranging to get credit for the project, you may be able to carve out more time for it, and having quarter-end or semester-end deadlines can be helpful. Plus, having a faculty member professor that is willing to support you will only benefit your work.

  • You might be able to register it as an independent research project or thesis, use it as a long-term project for a class/major, or create an internship out of it.
  • Is there a class on campus for which the Professor would consider offering the calculator as a class research or extra credit project? By making this project for credit, you can put more time and effort towards the effort and it can make the administration more willing to work with you.

Scope of the Project 

Representative Sample

  • What time period do you want to track food purchases for? Campuses typically investigate a representative sample of two months (e.g. one fall; one winter) to get an accurate snapshot of a full year's worth of purchasing. Some campuses include more 4 or 6 months. A small handful do a full year-long assessment. 
How many dining halls and/or other food facilities do you want to study?  At the minimum, you should assess at least one primary dining hall that is representative of food service on campus. Many students include multiple or all dining halls on campus, and some choose to include retail outlets and franchises.

Digital Purchasing Records

More and more, invoices or purchasing records are available digitally. This enormously speeds up the Calculator process, as you can directly upload data into the online Calculator. Ask your dining point person if they keep digital purchasing records. These may come in the form of "velocity reports" directly from vendors, or may be exportable reports from an electronic purchasing management system. Your dining office may need to request velocity reports, which should be available for most national and regional distributors. Note that schools contracted with Sodexo have universal access to digital purchasing reports. Contact for more info. 

Work Plan
  • Consider when you need to complete your assessment by. What size sample will you have time for? 
  • What does your schedule look like?  How much time to do you have to devote to this project (hours/week)? 
  • Will other students assist you?  How will you divide the work?
  • Work out the logistics and schedule for researching.  
    • In what form will you be able to look at invoices?  Are they available digitally? 
    • Can paper invoices be removed from the dining hall or must they be viewed only in the dining hall or office?
    • How often does your point person in dining want to meet? Weekly?  Monthly? 
Keep notes about how you plan to do your assessment -- you will have to submit an Assessment Plan before you can begin using the Calculator.

Step 4: Initial Meeting with your Dining Service Administrator (1 hour)

Once you feel comfortable with the Calculator, schedule a meeting with your dining service head. 
  • Build a strong relationship right away. Share about why 'real food' matters to you, and ask why it matters to them. Learn about what they like about working in campus dining and what challenges they face. Demonstrate your responsibility, commitment, and passion for this project with your dining service head, as this will allow you to do more and more with them in the future.  
  • Explain what the Real Food Calculator is and what you hope to accomplish with it. Be prepared with a list of talking points you hope to cover in the meeting. Include options for how to complete the Calculator (internship? for credit?) and important details about the calculator in which they may be interested (which other schools nearby are using it, what type of data is needed, etc.)
  • Schedule a meeting for the near future to complete the Campus Food Baseline Survey with your Dining Director or another point person from dining (see Step 7).
  • Identify a dining service staff member to serve as the Institutional Official (e.g. dining manager). The Institutional Official approves your Assessment Plan before you can begin your assessment.
  • If you're having trouble contacting your dining service head or getting them to agree to the calculator process, contact us for support at

ONBOARDING (Steps 5-10)

Step 5: Online Account and Institutional Profile (~20 minutes)

Create a User Account

You and your research team will need to sign up online on the Real Food Calculator Website. After you fill in your personal information, you will receive an authorization email with a link to click to confirm your account.

Create or Affiliate with an Institutional Profile

Click on the button that says "Connect to a college or institution." First, search for your institution to see if there is an existing profile to affiliate with. Other members of the Institutional Profile can approve your affiliation request. You will be approved as a "member" of the institution profile. To obtain "Researcher" status, you must complete Researcher Training.

If you are certain there is not an existing profile, then click the button that says "Add an institution." You will be asked basic information about your institution (all of which should be available on your school's website). Be sure to include all the dining facilities you intend to assess (or might assess) in your institutional profile.

Step 6: Designate an Institutional Official

Every member of your research team (everyone who wishes to input data) will have to create an account on the calculator website. They should first sign up, and then affiliate their user account with your school's institutional profile (see above). Any existing member of an institutional profile can approve new members. In order for members to be granted "Researcher" status, they must complete Researcher Training, and be approved by the RFC Calculator Team.  

The Institutional Official is the staff person (typically a dining manager) who is serving as the liaison to dining for your Calculator research. This is often the same person who grants you access to invoices.

Because Institutional Officials have the ability to see Real Food Calculator data and results, and the ability to enable your Calculator project, this person must be approved by the RFC Calculator team (RFC grants special access and privileges to this person). This is a special protection RFC has built in to keep your data, results, and project secure.

Once you have identified who your institutional official should be, and once they have agreed to play this role, you can invite them as an Institutional Official by going to your Dashboard and clicking the red button that says "Add an official." This will send them an email with a link that allows them to sign up as an Institutional Official and automatically affiliate with your institution.

Step 7: Designate a Team Lead

Each campus must designate a point person, the Team Lead, who will serve as the  main contact and be held accountable to maintaining communication with the Real Food Calculator Support Team.

New researchers who are designated as the Team Lead are required to join the Calculator Cohort in the Fall/ Spring. Calculator Cohorts create a community of researchers actively working on assessments who receive training, peer support, and technical support, with a clear structure for completing Calculator assessments as a cohort group.

Membership in the cohort is required for the Team Lead who will participate in training and conduct assessments this semester.

Membership is optional (though encouraged) for all new researchers who are not the Team Lead, but will participate in training and conduct assessments, as well as for continuing researchers that have already participated in a previous Cohort

Step 8: Create a New Calculator Assessment (5-10 minutes)

The next step is to create a new assessment for the year that you are planning to assess. You can do this by simply clicking on the button that says “start a new assessment.” We recommend that you assess the current academic year to have the most relevant results.

Step 9: Submit an Assessment Plan (5-10 minutes)

Create an Assessment Plan

Go to your Dashboard and click on the red button that says "Start a new assessment." Using the plans you made when you determined the scope of your project (see Step 3), describe your planned Calculator Assessment by filling out a quick form. The form will ask what months you plan to assess, who will be involved in the assessment, and how you plan to delegate the research and data input. 

Approval of Assessment Plans

Both RFC and your Institutional Official must approve the Assessment Plan online before moving to the next steps.  First, RFC approves your plan, and makes sure you're in good shape to move forward with the project. After RFC approves the plan, an email will be automatically sent to your Institutional Official with a link for them to review and approve the plan.  Because dining are busy people and often away from email, you may need to remind them to do this.
After your Assessment Plan has been approved both by RFC and your Institutional Official, your online Assessment will be open and ready for data!

Step 10: The Campus Food Baseline Survey (2-5 hours)

Before starting invoice data for the Calculator, complete the Campus Food Baseline Survey. The Survey is accessible on your Calculator homepage after logging in and affiliating with your institution. The Survey can only be completed by student researchers, but you will likely need to ask dining for help in answering some of the questions. It's best to take a look at the questions, and make a list of specific questions that you can't find the answers to, which you can bring to them. The Survey must be updated every year, as the information collected in it may change year to year.

  • The purpose of the Survey is to help you get acquainted with your school's dining service infrastructure and set up a framework for collecting data for the Calculator.
  • The Survey is also a great way to build a stronger relationship with dining services and find a common ground to approach sustainable food projects on campus.
  • The data in the Survey will be treated as confidential.
  • Fill out the Survey with the help of your dining service head. Other staff members who might be helpful are your executive chef, the purchasing manager, the director of auxiliary services, or your sustainability director.
  • If there are certain questions which you cannot answer, please contact us for more help.

Step 11: Getting the Data

Make a plan with your Dining Services staff for reviewing invoices. Make the request well in advance of when you plan to start your assessment because assembling the invoices may take some time.  Some dining service heads may simply give you copies of the dining hall invoices.  Others may want you to only work with them under supervision, giving you office hours to see them. Be sure to ask if you have access to digital purchasing records (in the form of velocity reports from vendors, outputs from purchasing management software, or other digital record keeping mechanisms). Digital purchasing records will save you a LOT of time. See more about digital purchasing records in Step 3.

Some dining services may ask you to sign a confidentiality agreement in order to look at data and perform the calculator. If you have questions about this contact

Step 12: Researcher Training

Once you've completed steps 1-11, you're eligible for research training. As soon as a student has created an account and affiliated with their institutional profile, you should see a notification to "Become a Researcher." Follow that link to watch a series of videos and quizzes that will give you all the information you need to know about doing research using the Real Food Calculator. Once you have participated in the research training, you will gain researcher privileges on the website.

CALCULATE! (Steps 13-16)

Research the food and companies from which your school makes its purchases within the scope of your project.

If you have digital purchasing records, organize the data and upload to the Calculator (see the Guide to Uploading for more info). If you have paper invoices, manually enter the data into the website using the data entry interface, or create a spreadsheet for upload using the formatting outlined in the Guide to Uploading.

Use the Real Food Guide, and your own research strategies (phone, internet, in person)  to determine whether each product is 'real' — Local and Community Based, Fair, Ecologically Sound, or Humane.  Consult the Assessment Tips throughout the process.

Step 14: Calculate Your Results and Check Your Work! 

Once you have entered and researched all of your data, your progress percentage for each month will read 100%. When you reach 100% complete on all months in your assessment, your results are automatically calculated. Email to schedule a final data and results check. We'll again check for any sources of real food that researchers sometime miss, and check for any red flags we see in your final work. Once you've double checked your work and made any necessary revisions, your results can be finalized! 

Step 15: Complete an Exit Interview (15-30 min)

Reflection and evaluation are an essential part of campus organizing, and feedback is an essential part of improving the Calculator! Complete a brief interview and exit survey to help make the Calculator better! We'll cover things like....

  • What is your total Real Food Percentage for this assessment? 
  • Your plans for sharing your finding with your campus (or broader!) community
  • Any plans you have for getting more real food onto campus
  • How was the process of performing the Calculator? What worked? What could be better? 
  • What do you think is important for future researchers to know? 

Step 16: Interpret & Share Your Results (1+ hours)

Review the "Reports" tab in the online Assessment Tool and interpret the charts and graphs provided. Feel free to do additional analysis of your own! The spreadsheet is exportable in an excel file. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Where is most real food coming from — which product categories and which of the Real Food categories?
  • Are there opportunities to celebrate your Dining Services and educate the campus community about existing real food purchases?
  • Is there "low-hanging fruit" -- products that you could easily change to increase your percentage of real food?
  • What types of changes would you recommend?
Consider how you might want to share your results.  Here are some options:
  • Present to a Food Systems Working Group or other relevant committees on campus.
  • Write an op-ed for the school newspaper
  • Convene a meeting with students, foodservice staff, faculty, administrators, etc. to discuss findings and the implications for the school's food procurement.
  • Write a report or give a presentation to for student government, the office of sustainability, or dining.
Consider how to make the assessment an annual process
  • If you did the calculator as a class project or for academic credit, talk to the professor about how to make sure it can happen again!
  • If you did the calculator as an internship or job, are there plans to continue the opportunity/position next semester or next year?
Consider how you can enact change on your campus to get more real food:
  • Talk with your Dining Manager about opportunities for sourcing real food. Are there ways you could collaborate with dining in that research? Many students have visited farms and community suppliers together with dining; this can build trust and strengthen your relationship.
For questions not answered in this procedure manual, email
Real Food Challenge is a national student campaign dedicated to creating a healthy, just and sustainable food system. Our goal is to shift $1 billion in institutional food spending to 'real food.'