Real Food Challenge Releases Real Food Standards 2.1

Laura Gallagher, Research Associate

Technical Update Emphasizes Importance of Justice in the Food System

Across the country, student leaders, sustainability experts, and campus partners are working to change the food served in university dining halls through the Real Food Challenge (RFC). Started in 2007, the Real Food Challenge is working to advance a more just and sustainable food system by shifting university food purchases “towards local and community based, fair, ecologically sound, and humane food sources.” Made up of young activists who drive the movement on campuses, the organization aims to shift 20 percent of university food budgets to real food purchases by 2020. In New England, 12 campuses and university systems have committed to achieving or exceeding this goal. New England signatories include: Clark University, College of the Atlantic, Lyndon State College, Marlboro College, Middlebury College, Smith College, Sterling College, Stonehill College, The Hotchkiss School, University of Massachusetts Amherst, University of Vermont, and Wesleyan University.

Campuses across New England participate in the Real Food Challenge. Photo Courtesy of RFC. 

Real Food Standards 2.1

Recently, Real Food Challenge released the Real Food Standards 2.1, an updated guide that outlines criteria for what qualifies as “real food.” Given the vastness and complexity of our food system, it is difficult to know the story of our food before it reaches the plate. Additionally, the variety of labels, certifications, and marketing campaigns often confuses consumers and obscures how food is actually produced. This is where RFC steps in. As RFC Research and Projects Fellow Dominique Fahmy says, “RFC students, alumni, and staff have the capacity to do detailed research on the values behind the various labels and certifications that it is really hard for students and consumers to do.”


The updated standards are a culmination of many years of student and expert research. They cover four broad categories within the food system: local and community based, fair, ecologically sound, and humane. For each category, there are specific criteria for what best exemplifies real food. Local and community-based standards include criteria that were developed with partner organizations and experts in the field, while the three other categories are based on third-party certifications. In addition, there are disqualifying factors, such as human rights violations, which prevent a food from being considered real even if it excels in other categories.

Local and community-based food comes from small and midsize privately-owned producers that are located near the institution. These criteria apply to both single and multi-ingredient foods.

Fair food is produced under safe and fair conditions by workers who are compensated fairly and whose rights are upheld.

Ecologically sound food is produced in a manner that protects ecosystems, conserves natural resources, and mitigates pollution, greenhouse gas emission, and environmental harm.

Humane food production uses practices that ensure animal welfare, reduces animal stress, and limits antibiotic use to the treatment of illness or disease.


Updates to the Real Food Standards

The updates in the Real Food Standards focus largely on equity in the food system. Dominique Fahmy shares the motivation behind the technical update, saying that “these changes are reinforcing a commitment to fair working conditions.” In particular, Dominique points out that prison labor, as an example of forced labor, is now included in the disqualification criteria for real food.


The "fair" category has been updated as well with the inclusion of the Small Producers’ Symbol certification. The Small Producers’ Symbol was developed to help small producers stand out in larger markets. It certifies products that are “produced in line with criteria for economic, social, cultural and ecological sustainability, and commercialized under fair conditions.” Foods that carry this certification qualify for the highest standard of real food in the Real Food Standards 2.1.

In addition to the updates, RFC reviewed all other third-party certifications included in the standards. The review ensures that the certifications continue to represent the highest standard of real food. Comprehensive information about the updates and research behind the standards is available in the Real Food Standards Package.

DOWNLOAD THE standards guide 

Continuing the Conversation

With these changes, the Real Food Challenge aims to advance the conversation around food and equity on college campuses. Their update responds to ongoing concerns about justice in the food system, and sheds light on some often unrecognized aspects of production. By addressing student questions from the past few years, RFC’s new standards contribute to an evolving understanding of food system issues.

FINE values RFC as an important player in farm to institution work in New England and around the country. We applaud their initiative to tackle the challenging questions of how to define REAL food. FINE is eager to further analyze these standards as we think about whether and how to advise institutions in defining their local and regional food procurement efforts, as well as measuring progress on other key food system values. One of FINE's roles is to point out how New England is different in certain food system issues.

How do national standards around food safety, size of producers, ownership structure, or even prison food production, fit with New England agricultural and social conditions? Look for further analysis on these issues in upcoming editions of The FINE Print, our blog, and social media. We also want to hear from you! Please let us know what you think in the comments section below.