Ten years ago, Wheatland Electric Cooperative was looking for the best way to give back to the rural Kansas communities it serves.

“We don’t want anyone in our membership to go hungry, so we decided to focus on helping our local food banks,” says Bruce W. Mueller, CEO and general manager of the 32,000-member co-op in Scott City.

From 2014 through 2022, the co-op has donated a whopping 227,000 pounds of food—113 tons—to a dozen food banks through an annual food drive known as “Cram the Van.”

The amount of food the co-op has donated each year has swelled from about 6,600 pounds in 2014 to nearly 55,000 pounds in 2022. Wheatland was busy conducting its 2023 campaign in late September and was hoping to donate $100,000 this year with the help of the local business community.

“Wheatland conducts by far the biggest food drive every year,” says Ruth Behrens, board president for the Community Food Bank of Barton County, which relies solely on private donations. “There’s a great need.”

In Barton County alone, nearly 10% of residents live below the poverty line, according to U.S. Census data.

“The people who came for food today [a Friday] told us they had nothing on their shelves and had to come in for anything to eat over the weekend,” Behrens says. “Wheatland’s food drive is a huge help.”

As the program has grown, Wheatland has focused more on raising money to give to the food banks to buy what they need most. Members can make donations through the co-op’s website.

“The food banks would get a little overwhelmed when we would bring in pounds and pounds of food all at once,” says Alli Conine, who leads food drive planning as the co-op’s director of member services and corporate communications. “Donating money can make it easier for them. They can buy food throughout the year.”

This year, the co-op has committed to donating $50,000 for the food drive and has reached out to local businesses to double that amount. The co-op also hosted its fifth annual Co-ops Care Charity Golf Tournament to help boost donations. Every dollar raised buys one pound of food, Conine says.

“People are so grateful,” says Kathy Levingston, board vice president at the Community Food Bank of Barton County. “Some start tearing up when they see how much food we’re able to give them.”

Mueller says the food drive has been successful because of the commitment of co-op employees and trustees and the support of the community. All donations stay in the community where they were donated.

“It’s a total Wheatland effort to deliver this for the members who need help,” he says. “Our staff and board of trustees volunteer their time to go to these community events where we get our donations.”

It helps to come up with different themes for the food drive each year, Conine says. In 2022, the theme was “WE Think Big.”

“When we started, it was a much simpler version of what we do now,” she says. “You have to keep changing things up a bit to keep people energized and excited. The way we do things has evolved, but the reason why is the same.”

Conine and her team start planning the food drive in July, with most of the events held in the fall to help provide donations for Thanksgiving.

“We need to limit it to a few months or we’ll burn people out,” Mueller says.

Wheatland uses social media and radio and newspaper ads to spread the word.

“Our members hear a lot about Cram the Van,” Conine says. “Everybody knows what it is by now. And we remind them to look for us at those Friday night football games.”

The results have been worth all the effort, Mueller says.

“Go ask your local food banks what they really need and get started,” he advises other interested co-ops. “It’s the right thing to do and you’ll never regret it.”