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Frequently Asked Questions

Frequently Asked Questions

  1. What is "real food"?
  2. Why students?
  3. Why now?
  4. How is the Real Food network structured?
  5. How did the Real Food Challenge start?
  6. Who is the Food Project and California Student Sustainability Coalition and how are they related to the Real Food Challenge?
  7. How is the Real Food Challenge funded?
  8. What is a "food system"?
  9. How does food and changing the world fit together?
  10. Will you bombard me with e-mails if I join?
  11. Is it free to join?
  12. Why should I take action?
  13. How do I get started?
Still have unanswered questions? Contact a Real Food Challenge representative and pick their brain!

1. What is "real food"?

food  [food] n 1. something that nourishes, sustains, or supplies

real [ree-uhl, reel] adj 1. true and actual; not artificial

Real Food is food which truly nourishes producers, consumers, communities and the earth.  It is a food system--from seed to plate--that fundamentally respects human dignity and health, animal welfare, social justice and environmental sustainability.

Some people call it "local," "green," "slow," or "fair."  We use "Real Food" as a holistic term to bring together many of these diverse ideas people have about a values-based food economy (see our Real Food Wheel).

This is about more than supermarket labels. The Real Food Challenge has developed an innovative Real Food Calculator, which provides in-depth definitions of "real food" and a tracking system for institutional purchasing.  With this tool, "real food" is broken down into four core categories: local/community-based, fair, ecologically sound, and humaneClick here to learn more about the Real Food Calculator.

2. Why students?

Because students know what's up. We have shown that we have the passion, drive and wherewithal to make real change. Thousands of students are already working to create a more just and sustainable food system, and have demonstrated a commitment to the highest ideals of environmental sustainability and social justice.
Because students have power. We're the ones eating that cafeteria food every day, and our voice matters. Whether they know it or not, university administrations and food service operations are accountable to student demands.
Because students (and young people in general) have the biggest stake in the future. We are future teachers, engineers, doctors, parents, filmmakers, plumbers, farmers, and urban planners, we will be decision-makers at every level of society. Our priorities are the priorities of the future.
Because the movement needs students. From Women's Suffrage to Civil Rights, few if any social change movements have succeeded without the energy, bravery, and commitment of young people.
Clearly, students are key to change. But students are currently lacking coordination and system-wide organization. Unlike food service directors, college presidents and other campus stakeholders, we don't, for instance, tend to think about campus food as one big market. If our efforts can be better coordinated and focused, we have the potential to become a force far more powerful than our numbers suggest.

2. Why now?

The time is ripe! People are increasingly waking up to the need for change. The situation is dire, as environmental degradation, corporate consolidation, homogenization, and alienation become the hallmarks of our food system. The momentum for change is growing; consumers are demanding more real food, activists from across the country are linking up, and the buzz is growing all around. On hundreds of college campuses all around the country, the momentum has become a budding movement.
This movement, however, lacks common goals, a common framework, and a collective voice. Nor is this movement as diverse and widespread as it should be. If we move strategically and effectively, we can capitalize on the growing energy and bring the many elements of the campus food movement into collaboration, working towards a unified goal of more socially and environmentally conscious food.

3. How is the Real Food campaign and network structured?

Overall, the campaign is organized regionally, reflecting the distinct needs, history, and opportunities present in different parts of the country. Students run the campaign itself on their campuses. These students are supported by one another as well as by Real Food Challenge organizers and staff.
Check out the Our Team page, which explains how RFC is structured.

4. How did the Real Food Challenge start?

Discussion about a national campaign began in earnest when representatives of the California Student Sustainability Coalition (CSSC) joined The Food Project's (TFP) youth delegation at the 2006 Food and Society Conference sponsored by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. The youth delegates saw a connection between their work on college campuses and the Foundation's new goal of shifting the presence of good food in the food system from 2 to 10%. They realized that a similarly-framed goal could help to focus the work of students in shifting the college food system.
A year later at the 2007 Food and Society Conference, TFP, CSSC and student leaders formally created a Steering Committee and a Design Team to make the idea a reality.
Of course, the deeper roots of the Real Food Challenge lie in the ground nurtured by many pioneering individuals and groups, especially United Students for Fair Trade, Oxfam's CHANGE Leaders Program, the Student Farmworker Alliance, the Community Food Security Coalition, Equal Exchange, and Slow Food on Campus, to name a few. The Real Food Challenge exists to support and amplify all of these important efforts.

5. Who are The Food Project and California Student Sustainability Coalition and how are they related to the Real Food Challenge now?

Located in Boston, The Food Project has built a national model of engaging young people in personal and social change through sustainable agriculture.
The California Student Sustainability Coalition is a network of students, alumni, faculty, administration, supporters, and the general public working to unite and empower the California community of higher education to collaboratively and nonviolently transform our selves and our institutions based on our inherent social, economic, and ecological responsibilities.
TFP and CSSC co-sponsored the Real Food Challenge until July 2012, and members from both groups have been the driving force in envisioning the Real Food Challenge and getting it onto campuses across the nation.
There are many other groups that have been hugely influential in the Real Food Challenge. Please see our Challenge Partners page for a complete list.

6. How is the Real Food Challenge funded?

90% of all program activities are funded by student fundraising efforts--event registration fees, school sponsorships, in-kind donations and more.

 Core staff and overhead is largely funded through foundation grants and individual donors.  The Real Food Challenge counts among its funding partners:
The Cedar Tree Foundation
Equal Exchange
Farm Aid
The W. K. Kellogg Foundation
High Meadows Foundation
The Jewish Organizing Initiative
The Small Planet Fund
The Zimmerman Foundation
Compton Foundation
Echoing Green
Claneil Foundation

We appreciate all of the support we have received, financial and otherwise.

The growing network of Real Food Challenge Alumni also play an important role in sustaining the organization.
Third Sector New England acts as the fiscal agent for the Real Food Challenge. If you are interested in contributing, please contact Anim Steel at or Donate Now.

7. What is a "food system"?

A food system refers to a web of individuals, organizations, companies, and other institutions (including government) that work to produce, process, and distribute food; representing the whole journey from seed to plate and back again. This includes (but is not limited to) seed production, agriculture, labor, distribution, processing, purchasing, consumption and waste.
We might consider our dominant food system today a "global-industrial" food system, in which product chains often stretch around the globe, largely fueled by fossil fuels and exploited labor. A healthy food system, by contrast, has the power to nourish people, communities and the earth through a commitment to just and sustainable practices, not just on the farm, but throughout the many parts of the greater food system.
Just as we talk about the "health care system" beyond simple medicine, the term "food system" simply helps us talk about food beyond just the farm, the supermarket, or the refrigerator.

8. How do food and changing the world fit together?

Everybody eats and therefore everybody is affected by food. Some people starve while others have too much to eat. Some agricultural practices have created dangerous environmental problems while others have helped restore animal habitats, reduced dangerous soil erosion, and increased plant biodiversity. Some workers in agricultural production face oppressive and dangerous workplaces everyday while others are well compensated for their work and are able to work year round in safe places. Some food that is produced these days is so unhealthy for people consuming it that the United States is seeing a rise in food related diseases like obesity and diabetes. And some food is healthy and a joy to eat and brings people together over the table.
Considering these many effects of our food, we can see that by changing our food system, we can help change the world. Changing the world takes a lot more than simply consuming differently, it requires using food as a means to change both structures and people.

 9. Will you bombard me with emails if I join the mailing list?

No. We recognize that you don't want to be flooded with our email. If you sign up on the Real Food Challenge email list, will send out only relevant updates and information, which will range from once a month to once every 2 weeks.

10. Is it free to join?

Absolutely. In fact, if you're already involved with food issues on your campus, then you're already involved in the Challenge. Just create (or update) a profile for your school on our interactive Network Map here.

11. Why should I take action?

The Real Food Challenge is a way to educate your community and create real social change. Most importantly, by taking action you'll join a growing network of people eager to share ideas and resources with you. With Real Food Challenge trainings, conferences, local events and online resources available to you, you'll be well on your way to effective campus organizing and advocacy.
Working towards the Real Food Challenge's national campaign goal--shifting $1 billion to real food in 10 years--also shows others how important it is that students and their allies stand together to demand a food system that reflects a world we can be proud of.

 12. How do I get started?

Easy as pie! Click here for all the info you need.