Most of us spend a lot of money at the grocery.

And most of our grocery stores are good about generously supporting charitable organizations in our communities.

Even better is the fact that smart shoppers can target their charitable contributions to organizations through supermarket companies, simply by signing up for the programs either at the grocery or through participating schools.

For example, Harris Teeter has a Together in Education program where shoppers link their VIC (Very Important Customer) cards to as many as five area schools for the academic year.

The designated schools (any accredited school can get a code to be included on the list) receive donations every time you buy Harris Teeter brands or fill prescriptions at the Harris Teeter pharmacy. The Together in Education program, which is just now getting people linked up for this school year, last year included more than 150 local schools and donated $9,635 to them.

“It’s amazing what schools can raise when they get people to link their cards to them,” said Harris Teeter spokeswoman Catherine Reuhl, noting that one school in northern Virginia raised almost $30,000 through its network of links. “We allow (participating) schools to stand in front of the store and ask customers to link to them.”

Kroger has a generous gift card give-back program, which “awards over a million dollars annually in Middle Tennessee,” said spokeswoman Melissa Eads.

The Kroger program is set up where charitable organizations and schools buy Kroger gift cards that are electronically linked to them, and then they sell the cards at face value to their members and friends to use for their regular shopping.

The payoff is that 4 percent of the sales go to the designated nonprofit or accredited K-12 school after its total reaches $5,000 in Kroger sales.

People who buy the linked cards can then get them recharged all year for whatever amount they want, and 4 percent of what they spend keeps on flowing to the nonprofit of choice.

The Publix Partner Card program, which is designed to help schools raise money, allows more than 100 Middle Tennessee schools and school groups, such as bands and booster clubs, to simply sign up for the cards and then issue them to students, parents, faculty and staff to use when they shop at Publix.

Publix scans the cards when shoppers check out and donates $250 for every $37,500 in store sales scanned against the school’s collective account.

Donations add up

These programs are easy for schools and for shoppers.

Karen Bailey of the White House Heritage High School athletic boosters told me that her organization bought about 100 Kroger gift cards, with values ranging from $5 to $150, and sold them at face value to students, parents, grandparents and other supporters.

Then, when those folks did their regular Kroger shopping, Kroger routed 4 percent of their total to the club — totaling almost $2,500 in the first five months.

“Everybody is shopping anyway,” Karen told me. She said whatever shoppers spend using the cards means more money for the athletic facilities at her children’s newly built high school, where athletic fields, lights and bleachers were not funded.

She said the gift card fundraising has been so easy. “We were working all weekend doing concessions, I mean working hard, and not making but $1,000. This is so much better.”

Raising $2,500 in five months sounds pretty good for just having people buy gift cards at cost for shopping they would have done anyway.

Cathy Nash told me how her granddaughter’s McGavock High School band has been using Kroger’s gift card program for at least five years to raise money for uniforms, band trips and more.

Cathy said the annual cost of being in McGavock’s band is a whopping $1,231 per band member.

“So we do a lot of fundraising, but the mainstay is Kroger. It is about the easiest and the most profitable for us. It averages $1,000 to $2,000 a month (in money generated by the Kroger gift card program),” said Cathy, who said she started out this school year with 800 band-linked cards with $5 each on them in hopes of getting 800 shoppers adding to the cause.

Yes, indeed, these offers can add up.

Publix spokeswoman Brenda Reid said Publix has donated $854,519 in Middle Tennessee since it came into this market in 2002. Last year alone, Publix donated $138,368 to Middle Tennessee public and private schools or their parent-teacher associations, including Hillwood High School, Pegram Elementary, Rock Springs Middle School, La Vergne Lake Elementary School, Father Ryan High School and more.

“We do not dictate how the schools should use the money,” Reid said. “Most of the schools that participate put the money back into the school or into the PTA. There are some schools that have partner cards for the booster clubs. Schools are allowed to have as many organizations registered as they would like. However, it’s in the best interest of the schools to pool the money so that they can earn it sooner.”

Everyone can help

Cookbook author and my longtime friend Anne Byrn (of Cake Mix Doctor and Dinner Doctor fame) shared a wonderful idea for taking the grocery giving a step further.

For Anne, these giveback programs make all kinds of sense. Not only is she spending money to put food on the family dinner table for her husband and three children, but she also is constantly buying food to test for her various cookbook and recipe projects.

“A light bulb went off in my head. As a shopper, I have the power to decide where I want the money to go, so why not have it go to the places that need it the most? I spend a lot of money on food,” she said.

The more we talked about it, the more we realized that there are undoubtedly a lot of people who don’t get involved in these linked programs either because they don’t know about them or because they assume they are just for parents of school-age children.

Anne suggested that we all could use these programs as a way to support our public schools. Good point!

“I think people who send their children to private schools still want to support the public schools and this is an easy way to do it,” she said.

So why not encourage people who have children in private school to consider designating an in-need public school to be the recipient of at least some of their grocery spending charitable dollars? I was horrified to read that nearly seven out of

10 Nashville public school students are eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch program.

To see figures for each school, you can go to www.mnps.org and click on the “Schools” tab at the top of the page. Then click on any of the pull-downs from the “Schools List” on the left of schools and then click on “School Data.” The percentage of students on free or reduced-price lunch is shown for every Metro school. For example, for 2009-10, Amqui Elementary had 89 percent; Caldwell, 95 percent; Eakin, 34 percent; and Julia Green, 21 percent.

If you are looking for a school to designate, Metro Schools spokeswoman Olivia Brown suggests starting with your neighborhood.

“There is not going to be a school out there that couldn’t use it. There is no bad choice; all schools have needs,” she said.

I’m always looking for ways to help needy people in our community — and this may be the best yet — especially since it is a way to help significantly without costing anything.

Stay cheap!

Ms. CheapMary Hance