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.

What is Real Food?

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How do you define “real food?”

Schwartz: There are four categories and it must meet one of the four to qualify as real food: local & community-based, fair, ecologically sound and humane. (There are more detailed descriptions and requirements of each category and varying levels of qualification.)

So the student researchers go through all the invoices and purchasing documents to determine how much of all the food purchased by their school is ‘real?’

DRIVING FORCE: One of the key principals guiding the organization is that students are collectively able to demand and achieve widespread structural and social change. Schwartz: Yes, and then the school gets a full report, of total percent and even by different product categories and other analytics. It’s incredibly helpful for universities on how they can continue to improve.  Twenty-two schools have already signed on to increase their percentage of real food to 20, 30, 40% by 2020. UMass Amherst, the second largest college foodservice operation in the country, came in at about 9% and they’ve made the pledge to get to 20%. That’s millions of dollars being injected into real innovative food entrepreneurs who are meeting the demands and interests of millennials with sustainable products.

Do colleges come to you and ask to participate or is it students pushing their schools to join?

Schwartz: It goes both ways. Sometimes it’s a dining representative or a sustainability manager reaching out to us and we work with them to recruit students, or more often, it’s students calling us.

Finding Students

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Is it hard to find students on those campuses to handle the assessment?

Schwartz: It’s usually quite easy. Sometimes their work is funded through internship positions or they’re given credits, or it can even be a class project. Sometimes students just volunteer.

What is the percentage of real food being purchased by schools that have gone through this?

Schwartz: Probably about 15%, but I’d say they are the ones ahead of the curve. The overall average is probably much less than that. The goal is to shift a billion dollars by 2020.

How did you meet Real Food Challenge co-founder Anim Steel?

Schwartz: We got to know each other when we were young. We both worked together at the Food Project in Boston, which was the original sponsor of this organization. We worked with 100 teenagers to provide hunger relief and that was part of the inspiration for this. We thought, what if we scaled up, with not just 100 teenagers, but 17 million college students and what if we look at the $5 billion colleges spend on food? Young people can be incredibly capable of creating very powerful change in the world.

REAL TALK: One of several possible qualifications for “real food” is the products must be from within 150 miles of the institution, as in from local farms.Can the Real Food Calculator work in other segments of foodservice?

Schwartz: Yes, we’re looking at hospitals, ski resorts, hotels—anyone interested in an assessment and anyone looking to grow their own sustainable food program. It’s fee-based and we’re piloting that in the coming year. We’re talking to a city that wants an assessment done for all its food trucks, and we have a hospital interested. It’s a competitive rate—you’re basically paying for consultants’ time to do the assessment.

How much are students driving this movement on college campuses?

Schwartz: It’s all driven by students. I think you’d find today if you polled a student body, the overwhelming majority support this type of change. Within that, usually there’s a much smaller vocal core driving the change. I think this is just the new normal—a new era. One of the college readings at UNC and Duke was The Omnivore’s Dilemma (by Michael Pollan), and for young people, it’s becoming just as normal to learn about the food system as it is about the environment. From my perspective, it’s being driven by consumer demand, but I’m finding on the institutional and commercial side, there are a lot of innovative leaders who have embraced this and are now educating their consumers. It works both ways.

What would you tell college dining directors who haven’t bought into this?

Schwartz: I think the time has come for this issue and it’s going to continue to be of interest for the next generation. There is a great opportunity to harness that energy and excitement of students to create a pathway for collaboration. Rather than students banging down doors as angry activists, students are approaching this in the spirit of collaboration.

I’m sure this is a question and reservation you get from many, but is there a higher cost with sustainable food?

Schwartz: This may be an investment up front, but it comes with increased customer satisfaction, an increase in the number of students buying into meal plans and if you’re a foodservice company, being able to hold onto your accounts. The revenue generation potential can be pretty incredible when you embrace this. For a long time, many played around the edges of this, but if it is a core business strategy, you can really see the benefits.