Food fundraisers are popular with parent groups, and it’s easy to see why. Because food is consumable, some buyers prefer it to merchandise that takes up space in their homes. And since everyone has to eat, it’s something we all need to buy. Another selling point is convenience. Who doesn’t want a break from cooking sometimes?
However, food fundraisers come with certain considerations. First and foremost is quality. If people don’t like the quality of the product you’re selling, they won’t buy it the next time. Something else to think about is timing; if other groups in your area are selling similar items, schedule your sale to avoid a conflict. And if your school emphasizes healthy eating, you might want to avoid selling dessert or snack items. As with any kind of fundraiser, knowing what works best in your community is the key to success.
Here are tips from parent group leaders on running four different types of food fundraisers.
Candy and Chocolate
Chocolate is almost universally loved, so in some ways it sells itself. Chocolate and candy also have some natural holiday tie-ins to Christmas and Easter. The Unadilla (N.Y.) Elementary PTO has held a chocolate and candy sale twice a year for more than a decade. Before Christmas, people can buy little Santas in 15 different flavors, a crunchy snack mix called reindeer food, and chocolate-covered nuts and caramels. Before Easter, the offerings include bunny candy and bunny “food.”
“People don’t seem to mind this fundraiser as much because who doesn’t like a little candy? And it’s a quality chocolate that people know and are willing to pay for,” says PTO president Kim Gascon. In fact, the group discovered that an $8 box of chocolates sold much better than a $5 box of a different food item that the playground committee tried with limited success.
One challenge of the chocolate and candy sale for Unadilla is the varying prices, which led to more errors than when they’ve sold items, like tumblers, for a single price. “The candy items had prices like $13.40 and $18.65,” says Gascon, “so there were a number of errors on the order forms, and we did have to go back to parents sometimes and ask for more money.” For small discrepancies, though, they didn’t bother. One way to avoid errors is to encourage online orders, where the calculations are done automatically.
Many kinds of dough make for popular fundraisers, from cookies and cinnamon rolls to pretzels and pizza. Because this is a product that has to be baked, freshly baked samples are a good way to let people try it out. Samples at a PTO ladies night event helped increase sales of cookie dough at Sunburst Elementary in Glendale, Ariz. “We had quite a few who hadn’t purchased cookies in the past who told us they placed an order because they were able to sample them,” says PTO secretary Amanda Garcia.
Dough is delivered to schools frozen, so an important consideration is its perishability. Because of the warm weather in Arizona, it’s important that Sunburst parents pick up cookie dough orders promptly. The orders arrive by 11 a.m., and parents start arriving for that day’s early release at 1 p.m., but volunteers hang around until dark. Still, some orders are not picked up, and those go into a school chest freezer that’s been cleaned out in preparation.
Expert guidance can help you think through what’s involved when selling dough. That made a big difference at Anna Jarvis Elementary in Grafton, W.Va., where working with a local fundraiser representative helped the PTO’s pizza kit sale go smoothly. The rep asked questions to help the group think through logistics of the sale, like how much space would be needed when the kits were delivered to the school.
“Sometimes we think we need to take on everything and do it all,” says PTO president Shaunda Rauch, but many companies can suggest ways to make a sale easier for PTOs as well as more profitable.
Think about special event tie-ins, too. The Raisinville Elementary PTO in Monroe, Mich., sells pizza kits to coincide with the Super Bowl. The group also sells cookie dough in the spring. “Food seems to sell the best out of everything,” says Jill Synowiec, who coordinates the pizza kit sale.
One challenge of the pizza kit sale, which generates a profit of $2,000 to $3,000 each year for the 400-student school, is having enough volunteers to sort the orders quickly. To solve that problem, the PTO recruits students from the National Junior Honor Society at the local middle school, who are required to perform service hours. And to help parents remember to pick up their orders, the PTO uses a free text messaging app to send reminders.
Prepared Refrigerated Foods
Many parent groups sell prepared refrigerated foods such as cheesecakes, pies, and meat.
The Iola (Kan.) PTO, which represents four schools, tried a meat sale for the first time this year. Working with a local meat market that raises the animals and grinds the meat on-site, the PTO sold ground sausage for $4 a pound in the fall. “This is a very rural agricultural area,” says PTO president Becky Nilges. “Sausage may not work in some places, but we feel like it will here, especially since it’s all local. The meat market said if this works well, maybe we’ll do ham around Easter.”
Affordability was a key in the inaugural—and simultaneous—cheesecake and stromboli sales
at Sunrise Estates Elementary in Irwin, Pa. “It really helped that the stromboli was just $3 apiece, so a lot of people were willing to try it,” says PTO president Christine Snyder. “Cheesecakes were $7 to $20, which is still pretty affordable. We had a lot of small orders, but I think next year they’ll be more likely to buy more.”
Timing is the driver of the Thanksgiving Day pie sale sponsored by the Colts Neck (N.J.) PTO, which supports three schools. Profits are modest, but the true purpose of the effort is to supply pies that families can serve at Thanksgiving. Pies are ordered from a local orchard and delivered on the same evening as parent-teacher conferences, making it even more convenient for buyers. The PTO also offers a way to donate pies to a local charity, says Maureen Finnegan, who coordinates the sale.
Packaged Popcorn and Snacks
Snacks like popcorn, trail mix, nuts, and beef jerky are always popular. However, allergies can be a significant concern with snack fundraisers, especially those that have snacks with nuts. The Midlands STEM Institute PTO in Winnsboro, S.C., listed all ingredients on the order sheet for its gourmet popcorn sale and used a facility where no children were present to separate the orders, which were handed out only to parents, says PTO president Takisha Roseboro.
Midlands’ popcorn sale was very profitable, making the extra precautions worthwhile. Buyers enjoyed the freshness of the popcorn and being able to choose among multiple flavors.
The Parkside Elementary PTA in Solon, Ohio, took similar precautions with its nut sale. The PTA changes fundraisers frequently to capture parent interest. The nuts, which hadn’t been offered for several years, came from a local business that parents like to support. “We had a pickup day for parents because we did not want nut products sent home with students,” says sale coordinator Jennifer Schusterman. “And we kept the products in the front atrium of the school blocked off by tables.”
Beef jerky is one of the fundraisers sponsored by the Wayne Elementary PTO in Kewaskum, Wis. It’s held in conjunction with the sale of homemade pizzas, about 2,000 of which are made by a team of 60 volunteers, says Christina Johnson, who coordinates the pizza sale. Usually, groups try not to do the same fundraisers as other local groups, but in Kewaskum, the pizza and beef jerky sale done by the fire department actually helps promote the PTO sale, which happens a few weeks later.