Past Sustainable Food Efforts: Real Food Challenge

The Real Food Challenge, an organization that seeks to leverage the purchasing power of universities to create a sustainable food system, defines “real food” as local or community-based, fair, ecologically sound, and humane. Although Williams did not officially become a RFC signatory, for a number of years, the college worked towards the RFC goal of purchasing at least 20% Real Food annually by 2020.  Zilkha Center and Dining used the Real Food Calculator (and their Real Food Guide) to track Williams’ sustainable food purchases over time. In 2016-2017, Williams was 15% Real Food and was able to increase it to 18% in 2017-2018, but dipped down below 10% in 2019-2020. 

To learn about the student-led start to Williams’ use of the Real Food Challenge, read the blogpost about Eirann Cohen ’15, Jacob Addelson ’14, and Anim Steel ’94.

Real Food Challenge Auditing Process

Zilkha Center Sustainable Food interns go through Dining’s purchase invoices to assess each individual item purchased during two months. In the past few years, interns have audited purchases from September and February in order to capture a good harvest month and a bad harvest month. 

First, an item is classified according to its food group (produce, meat, poultry, dairy, etc.), before interns check whether or not it meets the standards outlined for each of the four real food categories. Interns must also note whether the item falls into any of the disqualifiers, such as if it contains any GMOs, is ultra-processed, or comes from a producer with labor violations. This process sometimes involves calling distributors, manufacturers, and farms in order to find out more about their specific growing methods, labor practices, or third-party certifications. If an item fits into at least one category, it qualifies as real food.

Once the research is complete, interns can access Williams’ complete results on the Real Food Calculator website. These results are helpful in determining which food groups Williams is doing especially well in terms of sustainable purchasing, and which food groups need the most improvement. It is also valuable to see which specific aspects of sustainable food Williams is more focused on—as determined by our relative percentages in each of the four real food categories. 


  • In 2017-2018, Williams was 18% Real Food, up from 15% in 2016-2017. Based on our 2017-2018 results, the food groups we are doing especially well in are dairy (49% real), eggs (36%), and tea/coffee (30%); meanwhile, categories that require significant improvement include grocery items (5% real), baked goods (5%), and poultry (0%). Furthermore, according to these results, Williams appears to be prioritizing the local/community-based category in our sustainable food purchasing; 17% of our total purchases fell into this category, whereas only 2% was ecologically sound, and negligible percentages were either fair or humane.

  • In 2016-2017, Williams was 15% Real Food. Based on these results, the food groups we were doing especially well in were dairy (40% real), meat (31%), and eggs (25%); meanwhile, categories that required significant improvement included grocery items (3% real), beverages (3%), and fish (0%).