The Real Food Challenge

By Angela Babb, Food Planning

In 2006, the California Student Sustainability Coalition and The Food Project’s youth leaders began discussion regarding the ability of students and schools to improve food purchases on U.S. campuses. By 2007, a nonprofit, student-led program called the Real Food Challenge (RFC) officially formed with the intention of focusing national efforts of sustainable food procurement toward a unified goal of 20% ‘real’ food by 2020. Six years later, the RFC has researched dozens of certifications found on food labels (e.g. Fair Trade Certified, USDA Organic, Food Alliance Certified, etc.); they have established a framework for determining the realness of food; and they have developed a network of schools to support each other in this national campaign.


After several discussions on Indiana University’s Bloomington campus, the IU Office of Sustainability’s (IUOS) Food Working Group and the three food providers (RPS, Athletics and Sodexo) have decided to join this network. Developing a university-wide sustainable food procurement policy requires starting with a baseline measure, and the RFC offers a framework and tools for realizing that baseline and measuring progress forward. We have begun the pilot program, a calculator assessment, to investigate the current standing of food items found on campus. From there we will discuss the prospect of signing the Real Food Challenge Commitment – an agreement to purchase 20% real food by 2020, among other educational and institutional initiatives. Commitment aside, however, we will be the first in the Big Ten to complete the assessment and will receive an award for our transparency.

The Real Food Challenge defines real food in terms of four categories (discussed briefly in my last blog): local and community based, fair, ecologically sound, and humane. Each food item is evaluated in all four categories against a guide modeled after a stoplight. Food that meets the “Green light” or “Yellow light” criteria counts as real; food that does not meet the standard in a given category receives a “Red light.” Finally, food is divided into Real Food A and Real Food B. Real Food A is food that gets the green or yellow light in two or more categories. Real Food B is food that satisfies the green or yellow light criteria in just one category. This structured assessment allows us to consider every part of the food system, and reveals potential areas for improvement.

As you read this now, at least one IUOS intern is likely using the RFC Calculator to input invoice data and research the realness of food on the IUB campus. Four IUOS interns, including myself, are currently working on this project, and we are looking forward to sharing the results with the Bloomington community. We are excited to become a part of this groundbreaking movement, and we encourage all interested students, faculty and staff to contact us with questions and suggestions.

Researchers: Angela Babb (ababb), Stone Irr (sirr), Mary Roper (mkroper), Amanda Redfern (aredfern)


2 thoughts on “The Real Food Challenge

  1. It is interesting to see the applause IU will receive even without making any commitments to real food, just for, as you said, their “transparency.” And while this transparency is definitely a step forward, I think it is most significant because it will hopefully force students to actually look at and think about what they are being served, what they are paying for, and what they are eating. Even if IU does not initially sign on to purchase more “real food,” it is my hope that when students are able to see that what they are eating isn’t always so great, they themselves might make new demands and lead to improved courses of action.

  2. It sounds like a huge task, but a very necessary one! Just being able to see in one place the typical food purchases of our dining facilities will give us a great base for future improvements.

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