The inspiration for the Real Food Calculator came to David Schwartz while he was an undergraduate student at Brown University. After spending two years volunteering at a local farm in Rhode Island, he lost touch with the farmer. When he reconnected a year later, the farm had been shut down.

“My university was spending $6.5 million on food every year and shifting millions of dollars half way around the world and it seemed crazy that there was this incredible farm with products a half hour away that couldn’t survive,” Schwartz says. “I reached out to the dining director and they had actually just started a local purchasing program.”

The Real Food Calculator was born from that and piloted at Brown and in 2008 the The Real Food Challenge officially launched. Anim Steel, Schwartz and a team of others founded the student organization with the stated goal of shifting “$1 billion in existing food spending by colleges and universities away from industrial agriculture and junk food toward local, fair, ecologically sound and humanely produced food.”

FARM TO COLLEGE: While at Brown University, David Schwartz was inspired by his volunteer work on a local Rhode Island farm.Today, 134 universities are using the calculator and more than 600 student researchers have reviewed almost 85,000 unique products and more than $71 million worth of campus food purchases to see if they meet “real food” standards. Twenty-two schools, including the University of Montana with dining director and NACUFS president Mark LoParco at the helm, have signed the Real Food Campus Commitment and pledged to increase their real food percentage to 20, 30 or 40% by 2020.

The leaders of the philanthropically funded Real Food Challenge may be the most vocal, but there’s little doubt sustainability resonates with the majority of students across college campuses. LoParco, himself a champion of sustainable business practices, says it’s the students’ “birddogging” that is driving the movement.

We recently chatted with Schwartz about what constitutes “real food,” how the calculator works and why students from his generation are so focused on sustainability.

How did the Real Food Calculator come to be?

Schwartz: This really started as a way to bridge the gap between the values and interest this new generation of students has around foods and the issues of local, sustainable and fair trade. There was no metric that really helped the foodservice industry make sense of it all.

Explain how it works…

Schwartz: There are no costs for colleges and universities and it’s an educational experience for students. Students sign up and work with the foodservice department and it’s like a research project for them. We do either a full-year assessment or a fall/spring sample with a month from each semester. We get a combination of paper invoices and reports from distributors and contractors and upload them into an application and start researching the different products.