The front wheels of the grocery cart left the floor as Brad Bradley, head football coach at Heritage High School, took off in a dead sprint toward aisle 10. Leaning over the front of the cart, potentially for an aerodynamic advantage, he rounded the corner of the shelving, clearing out armfuls of peanut butter jars and coffee containers while the 60-second timer ticked down.
At Lynchburg’s second annual Shop to Stop Hunger Supermarket Sweep at the Kroger on Timberlake Road on Friday morning, the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank released five local celebrity contestants into the store. Armed with only a shopping cart and sensible sneakers, contestants were challenged to fill their cart with as much food as possible in under a minute to be donated to the food bank.
The Blue Ridge Area Food Bank covers 25 counties, serving about 103,500 people per month. Of those, about 19,000 are from the Lynchburg area.
The cost of the food collected in the carts during the supermarket sweep was covered by Kroger.
Michael McKee, CEO of the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank, kicked off the festivities.
“Keep in mind what this is really accomplishing,” McKee said. “It’s a simple box of groceries that could literally be saving a life. ... Let the games begin.”
Contestant Eleanor Hoehne, a radio DJ with KD Country, said she drew the short straw in the office.
In the radio world, 60 seconds is a long time, but before a whistle signaled the beginning of her sweep, she was staying hydrated and testing the wheels of her cart. Eyeing the canned food aisle, she tried to work out her strategy.
“I had all intentions of doing sprints at the gym for the last two weeks,” she said. “But I did not do that at all.”
Afterward, her only casualty was a busted can of peaches, and Hoehne said she was glad she got to participate.
“Running down the aisles, that’s great,” Hoehne said. “The 60 seconds, that’s fun, too. But it’s making a difference, that’s what’s really important.”
Other contestants included Chris Johnson, with Long and Foster Real Estate, last year’s reigning champ, who did some warm-up stretches in the bread aisle while she waited for the event to begin. Also in attendance was the trifecta of head football coaches from Heritage, E.C. Glass and Brookville high schools.
The friendly rivalry took center stage as they jostled for position while drawing numbers to begin. Each sporting their school colors, the coaches bantered back and forth, and watched Jon Meeks, head coach at Brookville High School, take his place at the starting line marked by blue painter’s tape on the tile floor.
“If I lose it’s because the wheels stick,” he said, laughing. He rolled the cart back and forth. “See that?”
He ended his 60 seconds with a cart heaped with cereal boxes, so full that cardboard containers were spilling from the sides as he rolled it toward check out.
Meeks and Jeff Woody, head coach at E.C. Glass High School, have been competing for more than 20 years. First in high school football, and now coaching rival teams.
“I love being on a team. If I can play with him, I feel a lot better than playing against him, because he’s good at what he does,” Woody said of Meeks. “But if we can get in here and together help out, then it’s love. It’s all good.”
Meeks said they are only adversaries about two hours per year, from 7 to 9 p.m. on one Friday night.
And, apparently, while tearing down grocery aisles at rapid speeds for a good cause.
In a total of five minutes, the contestants collectively managed to accrue hundreds of dollars worth of groceries, with even more donated in designated bins during the week and through monetary donations by friends and family. Altogether, the event raised enough food and money to provide 14,104 meals to the Lynchburg-area community this holiday season.
Allison McGee, corporate affairs manager for Kroger Mid-Atlantic, said Kroger is always looking for new and exciting ways to give back to the community. This is the seventh year the food bank has hosted the event, but only the second time it has been held in Lynchburg. Kroger in other localities — like in Charlottesville and Harrisonburg — also host them. Since 2013, the event has secured more than 306,000 meals for individuals and families who struggle with hunger.
“You never want to think about families or children going to bed hungry, but especially at the holidays,” McGee said. “Everybody wants to bring their family and their friends together and enjoy a nice meal. And this is helping families that otherwise wouldn’t be able to do that.”
At the end of the morning, Bradley took the grand prize, for the most expensive shopping excursion plus his barrel donations and money contributed by family and friends. In the 60 seconds spent terrorizing the aisles, he managed to scoop more than $300 of groceries into his cart.
Meeks and Woody ribbed him for toting his newly-won prize, a trophy featuring a gold spray-painted winged shoe atop a mini-grocery cart and metal can.
Bradley hoisted the trophy, laughing.
“It’s always good to beat E.C. Glass at whatever you do, I don’t care if it’s checkers,” Bradley said. “But at the end of the day, we raised enough money and food to feed people 14,000 meals in our area. That’s unbelievable. ... It’s not about winning the competition, it’s not about getting your name on an award, it’s about doing something good for the community we live in.”