The humble box tops clipped from Cheerios, cake mixes and more raised more than $74 million this school year.
About 700 million -- yes, million -- box tops poured into a General Mills processing center this school year, marking record-high participation in Box Tops for Education, a school fundraiser that has exploded to become the biggest in the nation.
The program, launched in 1996, has paid out nearly half a billion dollars to more than 90,000 schools. Born in Minnesota's back yard, it's in the midst of a major growth spurt: School payouts zoomed from $33 million to $74 million in just the past five years.
Cheerios box tops have been joined by 240 products, from Kleenex anti-viral tissues to gluten-free cake mixes. And parents can acquire virtual box tops by doing everything from watching an online Ford commercial to participating in a consumer survey.
While some critics charge that it's one more example of corporate marketing seeping into the nation's schools, volunteers who run the programs say cutting box tops for 10 cents a crack is a relatively simple way to raise money for cash-strapped classrooms.
Last week, about 600 volunteers from across the nation came to the Minneapolis Convention Center for an annual pep rally and educational seminar called National Box Tops University.
"School budget cuts have made it even more important than when it started," said Joan Fering, box tops coordinator at the Shakopee Area Catholic School, taking a break from a day of workshops and networking with fellow box top enthusiasts.
Her school was Minnesota's top fundraiser this school year, raking in $10,835. Said Fering: "This money goes for field trips, buses, teaching supplies, speakers for special programs. We have earned some serious cash."
Most parents are familiar with the drill. A volunteer at their children's school notifies parents that they should cut box tops off various products and send them to school with their kids. A collection box is set up at school or in classrooms. Parent volunteers sort and mail them out.