Doesn’t time fly when you are having fun and helping others? Five years ago, Wheatland Electric set out to find a new way to expand our involvement in the seventh cooperative principle Concern for the Community. Several ideas were kicked around, but we ultimately settled on a community food drive.
The main objective was set—collect non-perishable food items from co-op members and deliver to local community food banks in time for the holiday season. Members helping members. And just like that, Cram the Van was born.
According to the USDA, in 2017 the percentage of U.S. households considered food insecure was 11.8 percent. This means 11.8 percent of households in the United States had limited or uncertain access to adequate food. Our communities are not immune to these hardships, so we decided to do something about it.
In 2014, we found the largest vehicle in our fleet (a big, red extended passenger van), removed all the seats from the back, plastered on some flashy graphics, and set out to help the people of our communities. The plan was to grill hamburgers and hot dogs as a “thank you” for donations, and to make stops throughout our service territory.
What we learned that first year was invaluable, and toward the end of the campaign we really started to hit our stride. We knew we were onto something when the van was met with enthusiasm and generosity everywhere it went. We ended up setting a great baseline that first year with a total of 6,615 pounds of food items donated.
Now armed with a year of experience, Cram the Van cruised through 2015 with growth of 7 percent. In that time, we continued to host 11 events in 10 communities and added drop-off locations at all of our seven offices and partnered with the grocery stores in Conway Springs and Caldwell to set up drop-off points where we don’t have offices.
We also expanded the Fall Finale, an annual event now hosted at Scott City airport’s Spencer Flight and Education Center. Just in time for Halloween, this is a chance to mark the end of the Cram the Van campaign for that year. There are activities for the entire family: face painting, pumpkin decorating, plane rides, marshmallow roasting, and more. Again, the response from the community was tremendous.
Wheatland Electric received recognition for Cram the Van in the 2015 “Spotlight on Excellence” national awards program, sponsored by the Council of Rural Electric Communicators and the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association earning a Gold Award in the Best Event Category.
In 2016, the third year of the campaign, we started to think outside of the box for different ways to reach community members who may not have participated in years prior. This was the first year we partnered with the Cardinals Care Food Drive, a school competition in Conway Springs, and Harper Fall Fest, a barbecue competition, craft fair, and all sorts of family fun in Harper. Both events were extremely successful and helped us collect nearly 5 tons (9,363 pounds), a 32 percent increase of donations from the previous year.
After seeing the great response from the school competition in Conway Springs, we decided to get other schools involved. In 2017, Wheatland partnered with Hiss-Sherman Wealth Management Group to sponsor a district-wide school competition in Great Bend. Calling the event a success would be an understatement. The students of Great Bend responded in a big way, nearly quadrupling Great Bend’s previous year’s total, collecting 5,700 pounds of donations.
There are leaps and then there are bounds. In 2017, Cram the Van collected nearly 10 tons (19,332 pounds) of donations—more than doubling the previous year—with a growth of 107 percent!
This year, Cram the Van extended the school competitions to Holcomb and Scott City. Scott City not only had competitions between the middle and elementary schools, but also internally between the classes and ended up more than doubling the amount of donations by Scott City from the previous year.
Similarly, Holcomb hosted competitions between the four schools to see who could get the most pounds in donations per student. The finale of the school competition coincided with the inaugural Longhorn Fest, a family event the night prior to the homecoming football game.
Wheatland staff was optimistic, but anxious about beating last year’s record total. But, with the expanded school competitions, not only did we beat last year, but Cram the Van grew 15.8 percent to more than 11 tons (22,382 pounds) of non-perishable food items.
Whether it has been a cold Friday night football game in Conway Springs or a hot windy afternoon in Tribune, Cram the Van has braved the Kansas weather making dozens of stops every fall, and our communities have always responded. Over the past five years Cram the Van has collected more than 32 tons (64,773 pounds) of food donations. All items are then taken to the local food bank in the community they were donated.
So, where do we go from here? We are always looking for new ways to expand, but eventually, we would like to grow the school competitions to every school in our service area.
Cram the Van has played a large part in Wheatland’s Concern for the Community (the seventh cooperative principle), and in all honesty we have only played a small part in facilitating the response from our cooperative members who want nothing more than to help other members within their own communities. Thank you to all the Wheatland employees and volunteers who have made the last five years a success. We are excited for what the future might have in store, and, as always, thank you for helping Wheatland Cram the Van!