Our Standards


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. 

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, ranches, boats, and businesses that are locally-owned and operated. Supporting small- and mid-size food businesses challenges trends towards consolidation in the food industry and supports local economies.

    • Fair: Individuals involved in food production work in safe and fair conditions, receive fair compensation, are ensured the right to organize and the right to a grievance process, and have equal opportunity for employment.

    • Ecologically Sound: Farms, ranches, boats, and other operations involved with food production practice environmental stewardship that conserves biodiversity and ecosystem resilience and preserves natural resources, including energy, wildlife, water, air, and soil. Production practices should minimize toxic substances, greenhouse gas emissions, natural resource depletion, and environmental degradation.

    • Humane: Animals have their mental, physical, and behavioral needs met in a low-stress environment and throughout their life are only administered drugs for treatment of diagnosed illness or disease.

Real Food Criteria

The Real Food Guide outlines third party certifications and characteristics of producers from which an institution could purchase food. By checking a food item against the Real Food Guide, students can determine whether or not the item is considered Real Food for each of the four categories above. The Fair, Ecologically Sound, and Humane categories are mostly built around existing third party certifications. The Local & Community Based category, on the other hand, is not built around third party certifications but rather around specific criteria. Because the criteria for Local & Community Based producers can be independently researched by students (e.g., distance from the institution), and because shorter supply chains allow for more direct relationships and greater transparency, the characteristics of Local & Community Based food can be assessed without the use of certifications. To evaluate whether a product meets the Standards for each category, the Real Food Guide is divided into three sections that mimic a stoplight.

Green Light: Food items meeting these criteria or bearing these certifications qualify as Real Food and best represent the standard.

Yellow Light: Food items meeting these criteria or bearing these certifications qualify as Real Food, but the certifications and criteria by which they are being evaluated do not represent the fullest expression of the standard.

Red Light: Disqualification. If a food item exhibits any disqualifying criteria, it cannot count as Real Food in any category even if it meets Real Food criteria.

Real Food A vs. Real Food B

A Real Food product is ranked based on how many of the four Real Food categories it meets the criteria for. Real Food A is a food item that qualifies as Real Food in more than one category (e.g. meat that is Local & Community Based and Humane). Real Food B is a food item that qualifies as Real Food 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 an institution.

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.'