As he monitors apples and pears ripening on his organically farmed trees, John Jacobson, owner of Mt. Hood Organic Farms in Mt. Hood, Oregon, comes up with big ideas—some as large as the massive mountain that looms over his orchards. While he’s tending Jonagolds, Fujis, and Honeycrisps, he envisions band concerts and after-school programs. Jacobson’s orchard-inspired dreams have come to fruition as School Aid, a program in which grocery stores sell his fruit and return a large portion—40 to 50 cents per pound—to local schools. The nonprofit School Aid simultaneously protects the environment, helps kids stay in school, and involves businesses in a philanthropic community venture.
“All the fruit I grow is meant for kids,” says Jacobson, gesturing to row after row of apple trees. His partnership with stores—which sell School Aid organic fruit for a competitive price—funds tutoring programs, homework “clubs,” and Oregon Mentors; buys calculators for college-prep math classes; and helps pay for field trips for inner-city kids. Though the stores give away a large part of their profits, they benefit from publicity generated by supporting neighborhood schools. The School Aid program is currently in three Oregon grocery stores and was tested for six months in eleven Wild Oats locations.
Each piece of School Aid fruit bears a bright red sticker with a yellow school bus and is displayed in a special bin. That school bus has special significance to Jacobson, himself a high school dropout who only later attended college. “When a child gets on the bus the very first day of school, everything is possible—the future is wide open,” he says. “If we could keep kids on that symbolic bus, their chances of staying in school and succeeding in life would improve. But children do get left behind, and I think if they’ve fallen off the bus, it ought to turn around and go back for them.”
To date, School Aid’s greatest success has come at the Rosauers grocery store in nearby Hood River, where Jacobson personally stocks the bins with apples and pears. Rosauers’s sales of School Aid produce have reaped more than $17,000 for music programs in Hood River Valley High School and Hood River and Wy’east middle schools. At the store, Jacobson chats with shoppers and hands out stickers to kids. “Parents have hectic schedules,” he says. “They’ve just driven through traffic for groceries, so they feel better knowing that by buying five pounds of apples they’ve given $2.50 to their child’s school.” The appreciation goes both ways. At band concerts, a music teacher will hold up an instrument purchased by School Aid and thank the community for supporting the program.
“I want School Aid to become a national movement,” Jacobson says. “Through this simple program, we can make communities better without raising taxes or forcing kids to go door to door selling candy. “Organic apples aren’t just healthy food, they’re about building neighborhoods.”