Our Criteria


‘Real food’ encompasses a concern for producers, consumers, communities, and the earth, and represents a common ground where all relevant issues from human rights to environmental sustainability can converge. The Real Food Calculator offers a comprehensive and decisive definition for ‘real food’; sets a high standard upheld consistently among institutions; and supports users in setting quantitative goals and tracking their progress toward more real food on campus. 

The standards are compiled in the Real Food Guide, a list of criteria that determine what qualifies as "real food," which aids researchers in their food purchasing assessment. The criteria have been agreed upon by student researchers, as well as thoroughly researched and reviewed by experts.

Real Food Categories

We define real food as food that fulfills at least one of four categories

  • Local and Community-Based: These foods can be traced to nearby farms and businesses that are locally owned and operated. Sourcing these foods supports the local economy by keeping money in the community and builds community relations. The food travels fewer miles to reach consumers. The food is seasonal,and when it is fresh, it often has a higher nutrient content. 
  • Fair: Individuals involved in food production, distribution, preparation--and other parts of the food system—work in safe and fair conditions; receive a living wage;are ensured the right to organize and the right to a grievance process; and have equal opportunity for employment. Fair food builds community capacity and ensures and promotes socially just practices in the food system. 
  • Ecologically Sound: Farms, businesses, and other operations involved with food production practice environmental stewardship that conserves biodiversity and preserves natural resources, including energy, wildlife, water, air, and soil. Production practices should minimize toxic substances as well as direct and indirect petroleum inputs. 
  • Humane: Animals can express natural behavior in a low-stress environment and are raised with no hormones or unnecessary medication. 


Real Food Criteria

The criteria listed in the Real Food Calculator Guide are third-party certifications and characteristics of the producers from which your institution buys food. By comparing a food item to the criteria in the Guide, you can determine whether or not the item is considered real food for each of the four categories above. For example, Fair Trade Certified coffee counts as real food under the fair category.


To evaluate to what extent a food item meets the real food standards for each category, we divided the guide into three sections that model a stoplight.   The production method under each attribute can be matched to a section on the stoplight. These sections are a research tool and are not recorded in data entry, nor reported in the results output of the Calculator:


Green Light: counts as real food. Criteria (third-party certifications, for example) that meet our standards for real food.


Yellow light: counts as real food. Standards are not as strict as the Green Light criteria.


Red Light: does not count as real food. Criteria that do not meet our standards for real food listed in the Green light or Yellow light sections. Many of today's conventional farming practices fall into this category. There are three Red Light Sections: 

  1. Good start but not enough: progressive measures that do not go far enough to be considered real food 
  2. Unverifiable claims: marketing  or other unsubstantiated claims such as "natural" which bear little meaning 
  3. No way, not real food: practices that clearly do not meet standards for real food

Disqualification: If a food item exhibits any disqualifying criteria, it cannot count as real food in any category. Disqualifying attributes include egregious labor violations during production and the inclusion of ingredients  harmful to human health, among other criteria. Any product which exhibits any disqualifying criteria cannot count as real food, even if it meets real food criteria in the green or yellow sections under the real food categories. 


Real Food A vs. Real Food B

Real food items are ranked based on how many of the four Real Food Categories they meet the criteria within.


Real Food A is a food item that is green or yellow light in more than one category (e.g. meat that is local and humane).


Real Food B is a food item that is green or yellow light in only one category (e.g. produce that is only ecologically sound). 


This distinction is made in an effort to recognize various levels of success. Real Food A is advantageous for more stakeholders. While Real Food B has room for improvement, it is important to recognize that progress is being made. Real Food A and Real Food B count equally towards the overall real food percentage for the institution. Real Food Calculator results report the ratios of Real Food A, Real Food B, and Conventional (not real) food. 


Real Food Guide | Assessment Tips | Researcher F.A.Q. 


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.'