How does the way we express Real Food influence food consumption and purchasing?

by Isaac Maze-Rothstein ’14

At Williams College, a working committee of staff, faculty, and students use Real Food Challenge guidelines to determine how much sustainable food we are using at the college. Students decided that rather than use the online Real Food Calculator to evaluate a few months or a previous year of purchasing, we would incorporate the full set of Real Food criteria into CBORD, our menu management database from Food System Service. Students and staff believe that the values embodied in Real Food Challenge guidelines are thoughtful and reflect our values to support local and sustainable food. We are currently in the process of updating our database of food items, tagging over 20,000 products from multiple distributors with markers such as Marine Stewardship Council Certified, local, or Fair Trade. The students chose this approach over using the online Real Food Calculator because it would enable Williams Dining to get real-time reports about how much sustainable food we are purchasing. This information impacts purchasing habits and allows dining hall mangers and cooks to easily access and relay information to the student body about college purchasing and menu planning.

As a result of this investment of time and resources, we have begun to consider how using the Real Food Challenge impacts purchasing choices. Over the past month we have confronted questions and concerns about what the Real Food Challenge incentivizes. We find that the standard approach of the Real Food Challenge—measuring food in dollars—frequently results in increases in total food costs, rather than leading mangers and cooks to think creatively about how to increase Real Food while maintaining or decreasing costs. We began asking if units of measurement other than dollars, such as weight or total meal count, would encourage other behaviors within Williams Dining. In sharing our current findings, we hope to begin a conversation about the tradeoffs between different ways of measuring sustainable food.

A recent event on our campus raised the issue of the correlation of increases in Real Food and increases in cost. In the most recent annual budgeting process, Williams Dining requested a significant budget increase in order to source all the beef served in one of our three dining halls locally. While the department was fortunate to secure the additional financial support from the college, the event raised the question of whether measuring sustainability in dollars is the best way to get more sustainable food in the dining halls.

As a result of this experience, the Center for Environmental Studies, the Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives, and Williams Dining created a summer internship for a student to explore alternative models for sustainable food tracking. The student explored how Williams should account for the percentage of Real Food being purchased and/or consumed. The student also considered how expressing sustainable food in other units might incentivize different purchasing habits.

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How can we best encourage sustainable food purchasing at Williams?

Measuring food in dollars has practical advantages as the unit for the Real Food metric. Every item purchased has an associated cost, making price a common unit by which all food items can be measured and compared. This approach correlates with the national goal of the Real Food Challenge campaign to shift one billion dollars of college and university foodservice spending to support Real Food by 2020. The downside of this system is that one could find a few very expensive ingredients that meet the Real Food standards and use them to satisfy the Real Food Challenge without significantly changing campus foodservice operations. One example would be shifting meat purchases to favor expensive locally grown grass-fed beef, meeting the 20% mark without changes to other segments of the operation. Inversely, using product cost disincentives low-cost sustainable options such as organic beans and rice, which can be an ecologically wiser choice than even the most ostensibly sustainable beef option. Using dollars as the standard metric exposes the effort to achieve a sustainable food service to manipulation.

We realized that there are at least two other units of measurement common among all ingredients. These are the weight and calories of each ingredient. Looking at these three units in conjunction, we could see that there were tradeoffs between implementing each. We found that each unit incentivizes different foods in their impact on the Real Food percentage. Measuring items by their weight gives preference to heavy foods such as meat and dense fruits and vegetables. Measuring items by their cost incentivizes processed foods, dairy, and meat that are Real Food because these are often the more expensive categories of food items. Measuring food by calories as the expression of Real Food incentivizes calorie-dense foods such as fats and animal products.

While we have not concluded whether we will change how we express Real Food, we have come to see how the unit of measurement used results in different purchasing behavior in campus kitchens. Going forward, we will explore the possibility of counting the entirety of a meal’s menu as a Real Food unit. Just as CBORD allows managers to see the cost per meal calculated in real time as they assemble a menu, we imagine a real time calculation of a Real Food percentage in a menu, according to cost. This would be possible, given our ongoing effort to code all food items in the menu management software according to sustainability criteria promoted by the Real Food Challenge. The potential result would be setting a goal percentage of Real Food per meal, and then counting our Real Food progress in terms of whole meals, not aggregate spending. We hope this article is the beginning of a larger conversation about how the way sustainable food is measured and expressed influences behavior.


Isaac Maze-Rothstein ’14 is the 2014 Sustainable Food Analyst at Williams College. His project was advised by Brent Wasser, Manager of the Sustainable Food & Agriculture Program, Bob Volpi, Director of Williams Dining, and Ralph Bradburd, David A. Wells Professor of Political Economy and Chair of the Environmental Studies Program. Please direct inquiries to [email protected]