When it comes to fund-raising projects at schools these days, it seems like the offerings are limited to junk food and wrapping paper. Mark Abbott found a way to change that.
When Mark Abbott's nine-year-old son went around their neighborhood and sold about $400 worth of junk food to help raise funds for his elementary school, the young boy had an interesting observation--his family didn't include such bad food choices in their daily meals, so why was he out selling something he wouldn't eat to his neighbors?
Instantly, Abbott knew his son was right, and he set out to actively help schools break that longtime habit and form a new way to raise funds that didn't include things like candy, popcorn, pizzas, magazines and wrapping paper.
"Mark knew he could develop a better way for schools to raise money, and FarmRaiser was officially created in 2013," says Christina Carson, the organization's campaign director. "We spent 2013 coordinating test campaigns to make sure that the system we had set up would work, and are now moving forward with an attempt to bring FarmRaiser to anyone interested in participating throughout the state of Michigan."
Those test campaigns have found FarmRaiser working with a variety of different school districts throughout Michigan's Lower Peninsula. From Ann Arbor to Flint to Muskegon and up to Traverse City, FarmRaiser has run pilot programs. Locally, the organization has worked with Glen Lake Elementary, Benzie Central High School, Leelanau Montessori, Traverse City West Middle School and Central Lake Elementary School.
On the other side of that coin, FarmRaiser has also worked with farms and local businesses throughout the state and in each community they've worked with.
With Michigan being a cold-weather state for a good portion of the year, one has to wonder what a program like FarmRaiser can offer in the late fall and winter months. The answer: They can offer plenty.
"In the Traverse City area, we've had a lot of late fall/winter sales so the farm side of things is just getting started," says Carson. "We sold some really amazing root veggies from Isadore Farm last fall, honey from Champion Hill, Higher Grounds coffee, Brownwood Farms products, Food for Thought and Esch Road jams, salsas, and hot sauces, chocolate from Grocer's Daughter, and beeswax candles from BeeDazzled."
The fund-raising programs are really unlike those typically deployed by school districts. One of the programs is the option of a "community basket." That allows supporters to donate any amount they choose to the community basket, where their funds will be used to purchase some of the offered products for a local food pantry.
"We believe that people of all income levels deserve to have access to fresh, healthy food items," says Carson. "The funds for the community basket are divided similarly to the rest of the products, with the remainder after FarmRaiser's fee being split evenly between the school and the purchasing of products."
Another program allows schools to use an online marketplace, where the school can manage some, or all, of the fund-raising campaign online. Each campaign has their own unique website where special information--like the purpose of the fundraiser and how the money will be spent--can be included. Each student or participant can have their own profile to share with family and friends and allows sales to be made without the need to go door-to-door.
In 2014, as the organization works to coordinate late-spring and early-fall sales with schools, Carson says they'll be reaching out to farms near participating schools.
In fact, she says they're actively looking for local businesses and farms that are interested in participating in the program.
"Any company interested in supporting their local schools and gaining exposure for their products is welcome to get in touch and let us know what they have available," she says.
At its core, the purpose of FarmRaiser is to help people create community around healthy, real food products that come from the communities where they live, work and play.
When a school expresses interest in participating in a FarmRaiser fund-raising project, the company finds and sources products from as close as possible to the school, with a goal of having products come from within a 30-mile radius. FarmRaiser then provides the school with the materials they need, as well as an education kick-off for the students to learn about local healthy eating and provide materials for connecting the fundraiser to their curriculum.
So how do FarmRaiser's projects hold up against the greeting card sales and the mass-produced chocolates being peddled?
"We understand that putting on a fundraiser is hard work for a school and strive to make our fundraisers worth their while," says Carson. "FarmRaiser prices products in every sale to ensure that schools make at least 45 percent of the total sales. Every fundraising company is different in how they break down profits, but our percentages are as high, if not higher, than most of the other options that I have seen."
So will a FarmRaiser program be coming to a school near you? Quite possibly. This year, the company hopes to have at least 100 fundraisers to help lay the groundwork for further expansion in the years to come. Most of the sales will take place in Michigan, but there will be a few regions outside of the state testing pilot programs as well.
"Eventually, we plan to be an option in most, if not all, states," says Carson.
Sam Eggleston is the managing editor of NW Michigan Second Wave. He was born and raised in Michigan, where he spent plenty of time both working in fundraisers and working on farms. He likes the idea of blending the two. He can be reached via email.