Running the Real Food Calculator


Starting and executing a Real Food Calculator assessment is a complex and rewarding process. This guide lays out step-by-step instructions to make the research process go smoothly.


1. Understand  the Real Food Calculator
2. Contact Real Food Challenge
3. Determine the scope of the project
4. Meet with your dining service administrator




15. Send your data to the Real Food Calculator Team
16. Make revisions to your research
17. Complete an Exit Interview
18. Upload your data
19. Interpret and share your results 


 1. Understand the Real Food Calculator (2-3 hrs) 

If you're new to the Real Food Calculator, get an 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.

2. Contact Real Food Challenge (5 mins)

Contact us at to let us know that you're interested in running the Real Food Calculator! We will be in touch with you shortly to support you with running the Calculator on your campus.

3. Determine the scope of the project (2-5 hrs)

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 get paid to do the Real Food Calculator.

Questions to consider:

    • How large will your research team be? How will the size of your team impact the efficiency of your research? 
    • Which months of purchasing will you assess?
      • At a minimum, you need to include a representative sample of at least two months from the same academic year (e.g. one fall, one winter). You can also assess additional months based on the capacity of your team.
    • How many dining halls and/or food facilities do you want to investigate? 
      • You should assess at least one primary dining hall that is representative of food service on campus. 
      • You may want to include retail outlets and franchises if their purchasing patterns differ significantly.
    • What format  do your campus' invoices come in?
      • We highly recommend trying to acquire digital invoices or purchasing records, whenever possible. 
      • Ask your dining service administrator 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. If your dining service administrators do not have these on hand, they may be able to request them from vendors.
    • When and how will you complete your assessment? 
      • Consider your schedule and how much time you have to devote to research. 
      • Consider the logistics of researching. For example, you might not be able to take paper invoices out of your dining service administrator's office. 
    • How will you build Calculator research into your school's programs? 
      • Most students institutionalize Calculator research as a paid position, which we highly encourage. 
      • You can also consider how Calculator research might be conducted for a class project, academic credit, or even a thesis. 

4. Meet with your dining service administrator (1 hr)

Once you feel comfortable with the Calculator, schedule a meeting with your dining service administrator. 
    • Build a strong relationship right away. Share why "real food" matters to you, and ask why it matters to them. Learn why they like working in campus dining and what challenges they face. Demonstrate your responsibility, commitment, and passion for this project to your dining service administrator.
    • 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, such as 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 service administrator or another point person from dining services.
    • Identify a dining service staff member to serve as the Institutional Official, such as a dining hall manager.
If you're having trouble contacting your dining services administrator or getting them to agree to the Calculator process, contact us for support at


5. Create an online account and institutional profile (20 mins)

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 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 institutional profile. To obtain "Researcher" status, you must complete the Researcher Training.

If you are certain there is no 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.

6. Complete the Researcher Training (1.5 hrs)

Once you've completed steps 1-10, you're eligible for the Researcher Training. As soon as you've created an account and affiliated with your institution, 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 Researcher Training, you will gain researcher privileges on the website.

7. Designate an Institutional Official  

The Institutional Official is the staff person (typically a dining manager) who is serving as the liaison to dining services 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. This is a special protection RFC has built in to keep your data, results, and project secure.

Once you have identified your Institutional Official 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.

8. Create a new  Calculator assessment (5-10 mins)

The next step is to create a new assessment for the year you are planning to assess. You can do this by 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.

9. Submit an Assessment Plan (5-10 mins)

Create an Assessment Plan

Click on the "Assessment Plan" link for your current assessment. Using the plans you made when you determined the scope of your project, answer questions about 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 Plan

Both RFC and your Institutional Official must approve your Assessment Plan before you can move to the next steps.  Once 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 staff are busy people and often away from email, you may need to remind them to do this.

10. Submit the Campus Food Baseline Survey (2-5 hrs)

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

11. Acquire the necessary invoices

Make a plan with your dining service administrator for reviewing invoices. Make the request well in advance of when you plan to start your assessment because gathering the invoices may take some time.  Some dining service administrators may simply give you copies of the dining hall invoices.  Others may only want you to use them under their supervision. Be sure to ask if you have access to digital purchasing records, which will save you a LOT of time.

Some dining service administrators 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


12. Prepare your spreadsheets to do real food research

When you're ready to begin researching, download the template research spreadsheet, which was sent to you by email when you became a researcher and which can also be found under the Resources tab. If you have digital invoices, copy and paste your invoice data from the digital purchasing records into the template research spreadsheet. Alternatively, enter your data in manually from paper invoices into the template research spreadsheet. 

13. Research real food (10-20 hrs/week; 150-400 hrs total)

Research the food and companies from which your school purchases! The amount of time that the research takes varies based on the number of unique products that your campus purchases as well as the form of the data. On average, teams with digital invoices should expect to spend about 75 research hours per month assessed, while teams with only paper invoices should expect to spend around 200 research hours per month assessed. Teams with a mix of digital and paper invoices tend to require about 120 research hours per month assessed. 

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.

14. Check your work 

Once you've completed your research, check your work against the Research Checklist to make sure you haven't made any common mistakes. When you've checked your work, it's ready to be sent to the Real Food Calculator team for revision and approval! 


15. Send your data to the Real Food Calculator Team (5 mins)

Email your completed spreadsheets to We'll check for common research errors and for any red flags in your final research. 

16. Make revisions to your research

Once the Calculator team has emailed your spreadsheets back to you, make any revisions they've pointed out, and email your spreadsheets back to for final review. 

17. Complete an Exit Interview (1 hr)

The Calculator team will reach out to you to schedule an exit interview. Be prepared to answer questions about your research process, including any positive and challenging aspects. This will be a chance for you to ask us any specific questions you have on vendors, too. We'll also discuss how things could be different for next year's assessment, gather insights on the Calculator team's support, and any next steps for wrapping up your assessment and publicizing the results.

18. Upload your data (1 hr)

Make any revisions we may have discussed in your exit interview. Now your data is ready to upload! If you haven't already done so, ask your dining service administrator for the total budget for each of the months you assessed, and upload your data to your profile. Once you have uploaded all of your data, your progress percentage for each month will read 100%. When you reach 100% complete on all months in your assessment, you will be able to view you preliminary results. Finally, fill out an Exit Form to complete the review process, and your results will be approved. Congratulations on a job well done! 

19. Interpret and share your results

Review the "Results" tab in the online assessment tool and interpret the charts and graphs provided. Feel free to do additional analysis of your own! The spreadsheet for each month is exportable as an Excel file. Also think about how to make changes to purchasing on your campus, educate the rest of your campus, and ensure that Calculator research will continue on your campus in future semesters. 

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?
    • Are there "low-hanging fruit" — products that you could easily change to increase your percentage of 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.
Share your results with the rest of your campus:   
    • Write a report or give a presentation to a Food Systems Working Group, student government, the office of sustainability, dining services, etc. 
    • 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.
For questions not answered in this guide, 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.'