FarmRaiser is working with schools and communities to grow an alternative fundraising paradigm by pairing wholesome, local food products with new technology and old-fashioned fundraising efforts. Instead of sugar laden, unhealthy products like cookies and candy bars, FarmRaiser product offerings include fresh apples, dried cherries, maple syrup, bread, coffee, honey, and more. In turn, students become healthy-eating advocates selling locally grown and produced goods. FarmRaiser also works with schools to help integrate curriculum ideas into the fundraising project. Profits also stay in the community – FarmRaiser pledges that 90 percent of profits stays within the community, which strengthens local economies while supporting local producers. So far, FarmRaiser has worked with 25 schools to run 34 separate fundraising campaigns with even more schools signed up for this year. In addition, 88 percent of schools return for additional campaigns after their first.

Food Tank recently had the opportunity to hear from FarmRaiser’s chief cultivator Christina Carson and learn more about their company and how FarmRaiser is impacting schools and communities. Here is what she had to say about FarmRaiser.

Food Tank (FT): FarmRaiser is an inventive, almost disruptive innovation when it comes to school fundraisers. How did the idea turn into a reality?

Christina Carson (CC): Our tagline is “Reinventing School Fundraisers,” so we definitely agree that this is a somewhat disruptive innovation for the industry of school fundraising. We believe that fundraising has been lost in a sea of sugar and junk food and plan to help schools across the country bring healthy food and their communities back into the tradition of school fundraisers.

Our founder, Mark Abbott, felt too passionate about the idea of bringing fresh, local food to school fundraising to let it fall by the wayside, so he committed himself to making it a reality! We’ve spent the past year testing our approach, and are now in the middle of building a technology platform that will help us to keep track of all the schools and vendors we partner with while making it easier for students to sell healthy, local products to their friends, family, and neighbors. Once we’re live on the platform, we’ll be ready to expand much more quickly – soon to be bringing healthy, local fundraising to communities from coast to coast!

FT: On the website it looks like there are programs in Michigan and Washington state. Are FarmRaiser programs available in other states yet?

CC: FarmRaiser is currently only available in Michigan and Washington, with plans to be active in the metro DC area to kick off in January 2015. In 2015, we’ll be working to add new markets as quickly as we possibly can! We encourage folks who are interested in FarmRaiser to sign up on our website even if they don’t live in Michigan, Washington State, or DC. A lot of interest from any given region could encourage us to start working in that area sooner rather than later!

FT: What do you look for when choosing farmers or artisan food producers to participate with you?

CC: We look for a number of things when searching for the perfect farmers and artisans to work with, and have found that those characteristics change slightly depending on the community where we’re working. A list of characteristics includes:

– I always ask the schools and organizations that are raising funds if they have farms or businesses they are interested in working with. Sometimes this comes in the form of asking the person coordinating the campaign and sometimes it involves having a brainstorming session with the students who will be selling the products. We love the sense of ownership over the campaign that comes from the students/school having input on the product list.

– We always look for businesses that are tied into their community and interested in participating with FarmRaiser not just to sell their products but as a way to support their community.

– While we don’t limit our selections to organic items only, we work to support farms and businesses that have some dedication to the sustainability of their efforts. We’re also happy to put together 100 percent organic fundraisers if the schools prefer to do that.

– Size isn’t a big player in looking for businesses, as we try to bring on a slew of businesses of all different sizes in each community where we work. We love working with smaller businesses as FarmRaiser provides a great outlet for them to gain exposure. Larger businesses are great to fill out our sales and help us have enough product for really large campaigns.

FT: What has the feedback been like from farmers and food artisans participating in FarmRaiser?  Have they seen increases in their business as a result of increased publicity?

CC: Just about every vendor we reach out to is excited about what we’re up to, and most of them are interested in selling their products with us so long as the pricing structure makes sense for their business. For smaller businesses, we can be a great way for folks to boost their wholesale sales. We don’t yet have any hard data on the boosting of our vendor’s sales (and we could never take credit for all sales increases!), but we have had a number of great responses from vendors who have had folks come purchase from them at the farmers market after having first tried their products through FarmRaiser.

FT: What has the feedback been from schools and children participating in FarmRaiser campaigns?  Can you share any of your favorite success stories with our Food Tank readers? 

CC: There is nothing quite like getting kids excited to sell fresh local produce and other local products to their friends and family – it really makes me believe that there is hope for our food system to turn things around! Sometimes we’ll bring in samples of some of the products for students to taste and the excitement it creates is contagious. We frequently engage students in the process of sorting all the products to be delivered. This often includes at least one or two produce items that were purchased in bulk and need to be weighed and divided out into individual portions. Students learn valuable life experiences weighing the produce and keeping everything organized. I recently went to a school to help with their delivery of mostly fresh produce. It was the third campaign the school has conducted and we had a few repeat helpers from previous campaigns. They were so eager to help and all really wanted to be the ones working on the scales. I love when students express that excitement about a task that is totally educational! While not specifically a success story, one of my favorite aspects of FarmRaiser’s work with schools is how happy folks are to have a better alternative for their fundraising. Last school year we conducted 30 campaigns, and all but two schools have returned to host campaigns with us again this school year!