The Alexandria Country Day School set out to raise $5,000 this fall to send thousands of meals to needy families around the world.
But instead of selling the traditional school-fundraiser fare of popcorn, wrapping paper, cookie dough or discount cards to raise the money, they offered bags full of locally grown apples, artisan coffee and chocolates from local vendors.
Many schools must raise funds to pay for field trips, school supplies, team uniforms and community service projects, and these efforts gather nearly $1.4 billion through sales of magazines, wrapping paper and food products each year, according to the Association of Fund-Raising Distributors and Suppliers.
FarmRaiser, a Virginia-based company, is looking to upend that industry by connecting schools with local farms and artisan producers. The company hopes to show that schools can raise money for their projects while also supporting local businesses and promoting healthful foods.
Elizabeth Lockwood, the social service coordinator at Alexandria Country Day, usually resorted to a coin drive to raise money for the school’s community service projects. When a former teacher told her about FarmRaiser, she was willing to try it because she thought it would be better to support local farmers.
“I don’t think we are interested in selling anything that doesn’t have a service and educational angle to it,” Lockwood said.
Mark Abbott, 50, of Bethesda created FarmRaiser about a year ago after his son, then 9, asked why he had to sell products that their family never wanted to buy.
“I grew up on a farm and an orchard, so I thought, ‘Why can’t we sell farm-fresh products?’ ” Abbott said.
Abbott contacted five farmers and growers to provide products to 10 schools in Michigan, where he lived at the time. Abbott and his son created brochures featuring the produce that could support the schools’ projects.
FarmRaiser has generated $150,000 for schools in 25 states since, Abbott said. The schools each have a virtual “farmers market” on the FarmRaiser page featuring their campaigns and the products they have for sale.
The company’s most-popular products are baskets filled with seasonal vegetables and fruit as well as kits that can include artisan cheese, granola and honey.
Abbott said the school and the local producer each get 45 percent of the proceeds; FarmRaiser keeps 15 percent.
Jennifer Mattson, a parent at Alexandria Country Day, bought a five-pound bag of apples for $8 from Glaize Apples, an orchard 80 miles from the school, to help support the school’s community service project. She also bought a $30 pack of D.C.-based Undone Chocolates, which includes a bar each of pink Himalayan salt dark chocolate and cardamom, cinnamon and chili dark chocolate. The school also is selling coffee from the District-based Vigilante Coffee Co.
“These things are not just going to sit around. It’s something you can use right away, and it feels good to support a local farmer,” Mattson said.
Mark Seale, president and chief executive of Virginia-based Blue Ridge Produce, has been providing vegetables and fruit for schools since FarmRaiser began operating. He decided to join the company in part because of his own experience; he said that whenever a student would come by his house looking to sell fundraising items, he would always get roped in: “I am a sucker and buy something no matter what it is.”
Seale said he hopes students will soon be able to visit the locations where Blue Ridge farmers grow their popular salad kits, tomatoes and spaghetti squash sold through FarmRaiser.
“There are probably a certain portion of people that love to get the candy bars and like the wrapping paper,” Seale said. “But I think there are a lot more people that would appreciate the message that this sends.”