With a tight economy and limited funding for our public school system, every kid and parent is probably aware of what the word “fundraiser” means. Whether it be door to door pizza, cookie, or coffee sales, there is always a great school cause to raise money for.

Parent-Teacher Organizations (PTOs) are also turning to various fast-food restaurants to provide fundraising dollars by having families patron them one night a month during the school year. The restaurants in turn donate a percentage of the night’s sales to the school.

All of these efforts support our schools’ various field trip, curriculum and technology needs which is wonderful, but does it really support our children’s health and well being?

That is the question that Eileen Johnson, an RN at Westview Elementary in Apple Valley, Minnesota struggled with. On one hand these fundraisers help the schools do what they otherwise couldn’t during the school year but promoting eating pizza, French fries and ice cream, isn’t educating our children to live a healthy lifestyle.

A light bulb went off. Eileen knew it was possible to do both: raise money for the school and teach our children the importance of eating healthy. Why couldn’t her local food cooperative, Valley Natural Foods, in Burnsville, MN, host similar school fundraiser nights but through the platform of health education?

Also an RN at Valley Natural Foods, Eileen proposed the idea of Community Night at the Co-op and it became a reality during the 2010-2011 school year. Scheduled every second Tuesday evening of each month, September 2010 through May 2011, the night encouraged kids to be open to trying different fruits, vegetables and healthy recipes. Every night kids could look forward to free food demonstrations, learning activities in the classroom, a scavenger hunt and a healthy, affordable meal served by the deli department. The program became such a success that halfway through the year, another school joined and at the kickoff of the 2011-2012 school year, Community Night at the Co-op welcomed the participation of families from four local elementary schools.

Ultimately, the goal of the evening is to fulfill the co-op principles of Education and Training and Concern for the Community. It educates families about the value of healthy nutrition and exercise, it brings the community together and supports our local schools. Johnson’s hope for the program is to help reduce the occurrence of obesity in children along with reducing each family’s lifetime risk of Type 2 diabetes. Increasing fruit and vegetable intake is connected with bringing the rate of obesity down.

This program takes bringing the community together even further by acting as a fundraiser for the schools. Every month during the school year, Valley Natural Foods donated $200 to each school and encouraged shoppers and families to get involved, too. Anytime families, members or any customer shopped at Valley Natural Foods, they could vote for their favorite school by placing their receipt in a collection box labeled with the school’s name. The school with the highest number of receipts in their box at the end of the year won an additional amount of money—just over $1000 dollars.

At Westview Elementary, even the donated money is used in lots of different ways to promote family wellness, fitness and nutrition, according to Johnson. They give the money to families in need, whether it be to buy food or helping them get to the dentist. In the past they used it to purchase t-shirts for their annual Fun Run at the school along with helping fifth-graders teach first-graders about a healthy breakfast.

According to Johnson, healthy kids are ultimately better learners and happier people.

“If our children do not have their health, it is going to be hard to meet other life goals. By teaching our kids at a young age the importance of nutrition, it will help them lead a longer, healthier life,” said Johnson.