A bag of carrots, a gallon of milk and a pound of chicken go a long way at Hillcrest Elementary School.
The groceries helped transform 10 classroom chalk boards at the school on Frederick Road into new, multi-use whiteboards.
At Catonsville High School, a similar bag of groceries helped pay for two new video projectors and retractable screens.
And at Relay Elementary School, groceries helped remodel the school library for the first time in 35 years.
These groceries — and the projects that resulted from them — are all part of shopping rewards programs, where customers can earn money for area schools by shopping at specific retailers.
Supporters say the programs provide a simple and easy benefit for schools, giving administrators extra money for equipment and activities ranging from computers and other equipment to low-tech yoga training and field trips.
"It's free money," said Amy Breznak, president of the Westchester Elementary School PTA in Catonsville. "They're already shopping there. It's just a benefit for us, and it's so helpful."
"We don't have to fund raise for it," said Krista Wallman, president of the Arbutus Elementary School PTA. "You spend money. You make money."
Still, many say motivating parents to participate can be a challenge. Parents often forget to register their cards or designate a specific school.
"We try to keep reminding them," said Emilie Underwood, a parent at Hillcrest Elementary School who coordinates the school's rewards programs.
How the programs work
Many area stores offer shopping rewards programs for education. Giant grocery stores offer A+ School Rewards, where shoppers designate recipient schools and then accrue points for the schools as they buy items with their Giant cards. Giant awards schools money based on the number of points. This year, the supermarket chain expects to donate $2 million to area schools.
At Safeway, shoppers can use their Safeway Club Cards to participate in eScrip, a fundraising program where families sign up and support specific schools. Similar to the Giant program, Safeway awards schools money based on the number of points. Schools can earn up to $25,000 annually, but the store asks schools to use 20 percent or more of the $20 million it donates to go toward fitness and nutrition programs.
Target's Take Charge of Education program allows Target RED Card holders to designate recipient schools. The store then donates up to 1 percent of card purchases.
Other programs by national food manufacturers, such as General Mills' Box Tops for Education and Campbell's Labels for Education, involve clipping coupons or product codes directly off of products.
Most schools remind parents of the shopping rewards programs in newsletters and on PTA Facebook pages.
Others have tried more direct approaches. At Catonsville Middle School, administrators offer $5 off gym uniforms if parents bring a completed enrollment form for an area rewards program, said Laurie Burinsky, a Catonsville Middle School parent who coordinates rewards programs for the school.
The efforts seemed to be working. Last year, the school received more than $6,400 from Giant, about $600 from Safeway and about $500 from Target.
"Anyone can designate their cards for a school," Burinsky said.
Schools that tend to raise the most money are ones who get the message out as much as possible, said Jamie Miller, a Giant spokesman. Last year's top earning school, Mater Dei School in Bethesda, received almost $20,000.
"Communication around it is key," Miller said.
Yet some parents still do not participate. For many programs, parents need to re-register their cards and school choices each year, Underwood said.
Parents also need to know their store card numbers to enroll, she said.
"So few people have that anymore," she said. "Most just enter their phone number for the discount and don't have their cards handy."
Store hotlines can usually provide card numbers if parents need them, she said.
Others are concerned participating in the program will take away from their regular shopping rewards, like food and gas discounts.
Not true, said Sara Toscano, PTA president at Relay Elementary School, which received $1,600 from Giant and $469 from Target last year.
"It all adds up in the end," Toscano said. "It's just a matter of taking five minutes to sign up their card."
Lansdowne Elementary School Principal Jane Lichter, said the school administration hasn't pushed the rewards programs.
The school participates in Box Tops collections and received some money from Safeway last year after a parent submitted the school's name.
But it doesn't have much involvement with the Giant program, she said.
According to Giant, the school received $93 last year through the store's rewards program.
"The potential is there," Lichter said. "We just have to collect on that."