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The Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating Systemâ„¢ (STARS) is a transparent, self-reporting framework for colleges and universities to measure their sustainability performance.

Help Us Improve the Food and Beverage Purchasing Credit

By a large margin, the STARS credit that generates the most discussion, debate and angst is the Food and Beverage Purchasing credit. There are a number of factors that contribute to the contentious nature of the credit, including the the lack of a broad consensus about what constitutes “sustainable” food and data tracking challenges related to local community-based products.  

In an effort to improve the credit for the next version of STARS (2.2), we invite you to help us restructure the credit by completing a short survey before May 12, 2017 (see below).

The survey has now closed. Comments and suggestions are always welcome via stars@aashe.org.


The Food and Beverage Purchasing credit has evolved over the years in response to changes in our collective understanding of the relative impacts of food production and distribution, emerging standards and certifications, and the important work of farm-to-institution programs and organizations such as the Real Food Challenge, the Healthier Hospitals Initiative, the Sustainable Purchasing Leadership Council, and the Center for Good Food Purchasing.

With the release of STARS 2.0, AASHE moved to more consistently align with the Real Food Calculator, the other major sustainable food and beverage tracking system in higher education. The hope was that alignment would simplify tracking and reporting, primarily by allowing STARS participants to share the work of student researchers running the Calculator. Although this alignment has had a lot of positive impacts, it is clear from stakeholder feedback and the food purchasing inventories being submitted that several challenges remain.

The Issues

  1. In the absence of credible third party standards, the process of identifying sustainably sourced products is subjective and prone to greenwashing. In particular, because the concept of “local food” is not subject to independent verification, institutions that closely follow the STARS or Real Food definition of “local and community-based” receive a relatively lower score for their diligence compared to participants that apply a looser interpretation.

  2. Data availability and tracking challenges are still commonplace, particularly around local food, making standardization problematic and creating inconsistencies in what is reported to STARS.

  3. STARS is aligned with the Real Food Challenge in the sense that Calculator results may be reported to STARS, but the two sets of criteria are subject to different development timelines and can therefore fall out of alignment. For example, Real Food Standards 2.0, which was released after STARS 2.1, define a different mileage radius for meat than other products and include more disqualifying criteria than the current STARS credit.

  4. Sustainable food remains a highly contested topic. Although the leading assessment frameworks have adopted very similar definitions of “sustainable” and “local”, institutions continue to take a variety of approaches in practice (see, for example, Farm to Institution New England’s “How Colleges Define Local”).

  5. Although international equivalents are recognized, the current credit is not as accessible or relevant to STARS participants outside North America as it could be. For example, many of the recognized sustainability standards are only applicable within the U.S. and/or Canada, as is the Real Food Challenge.

  6. Some dining staff feel that the current credit does not award sufficient points to meaningfully encourage incremental progress. For example, supplier changes that require a significant investment of time may only have a small impact on the institution’s total score.

Possible Fixes

The STARS Steering Committee and AASHE STARS team have begun discussing some ideas to potentially resolve or mitigate these issues in the next version of STARS (2.2):


Potential Resolution

1. Minimize subjectivity by relying on credible external standards and third party verification to define sustainably and ethically produced food and beverage products.

Consistent with other Purchasing credits in STARS, the quantitative parts of the credit would only recognize independently verified products (with a limited exemption for small-scale farms for which certification is not cost-effective).

2. Simplify reporting and food purchasing inventory requirements to the extent possible and allow for potential data tracking challenges.

Institutions would be given the flexibility to exclude a product category from the purchasing inventory to the extent that data tracking challenges exist.

3. Maintain alignment with the Real Food Challenge to the extent possible.

Institutions in the U.S. and Canada would still be able to use the Real Food Calculator to identify verified products and report them directly to STARS.

4. Honor the diversity of geographic contexts in which institutions operate by recognizing different approaches to local and regional sourcing.

A new part would be added to recognize local and regional sourcing qualitatively. This new section would allow each institution to use a definition of local/regional food that best suits its context and priorities, however points would not be awarded based on the amount of the local spend.

5. Make the criteria more immediately accessible and relevant to institutions outside the U.S. and Canada.

The list of acceptable standards would be reorganized to better distinguish between global standards and standards that are specific to North America.

6. Create more opportunities for institutions to succeed.

Local and regional sourcing would be recognized and awarded points in a new part of the credit (see above). Real Food Commitment and NRDC Climate Healthy Menus signatories could potentially be awarded points in the Sustainable Dining credit or as Exemplary Practices. 


How You Can Contribute

To inform our work on the next iteration of this credit (potentially to be released later this year), we would like to hear from as many stakeholders as possible. We welcome feedback from staff, faculty, students, food service businesses, NGOs, producers, and other individuals and organizations working in the sustainable food space.

1) Review proposed long-term changes (STARS 2.2)

To facilitate focused feedback and discussion, we have made available a draft of a new approach.

2) Review proposed short-term changes (STARS 2.1.3)

To resolve current inconsistencies between STARS 2.1 and Real Food Standards 2.0, we would also like to propose an Administrative Update (v.2.1.3, potentially to be released in the coming months) to bring the two frameworks back into alignment for STARS 2.1 users. This would be an interim step to ensure alignment until STARS 2.2 is released. It would:

  • To address the absence of meat processing facilities in some regions, allow the processing and distribution radius for locally raised meat to be extended to 800 kilometres (500 miles). Require that ILOs/CAFOs be identified and excluded.

  • Allow small and mid-size local companies ($50 million or less in annual sales) that are privately and/or cooperatively owned and produce meat, poultry, eggs, dairy, seafood, and "grocery/staple" products to qualify as Both Local and Community-Based.

3) Complete the survey!

The survey has now closed. Comments and suggestions are always welcome via stars@aashe.org.