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The East Avenue Grocery Run

Wiping out hunger one step at a time

Since 2010, on the first Saturday in November, the annual East Avenue Grocery Run 5K race brings runners, volunteers, and sponsors together to raise money for local food cupboards and emergency meal programs.

Food insecurity is a pervasive problem affecting children, adults, and senior citizens. If you aren’t familiar with the term, consider yourself lucky. Most of us don’t worry about our next meal, but food insecure individuals and families don’t have reliable access to affordable, nutritious food.

Food is a basic human need, however, consistent, balanced nutrition is essential to good health and to battling disease. For children especially, not having access to healthy foods can affect physical and mental health and impact academic achievement. Poverty is a leading cause of food insecurity.

Here’s more food for thought. According to the hunger-relief organization Feeding America (a national food bank network), an estimated one in eight Americans is food insecure. That’s a lot of worried, hungry people.

Locally, three city of Rochester zip codes are among New York State’s highest food insecure communities, affecting up to 40.6 percent of residents living in these neighborhoods. But this isn’t exclusively a city problem.

Citing data from Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap report, Foodlink (the Feeding America food bank serving Monroe County plus nine other surrounding counties) reports food insecurity rates in its ten-county service area is 11.7 percent  overall and 18.3 percent for children. That’s more than 145,000 people, including approximately 48,500 children.


Racing to meet the need

The East Avenue Grocery Run fundraiser is the brainchild of Third Presbyterian Church (TPC) parishioners Kerrie Merz and Bonny Claxton, conceived initially to address the rising demand for TPC’s Feed the Hungry ministries. The Dining Room Ministry serves a weekly community meal, and the Food Cupboard provides emergency staples, fresh meat, dairy, fruits, and vegetables. The Christmas Basket program distributes holiday dinners to local families in need.

Merz and Claxton formed a Grocery Run committee and recruited other church members to help, though no one had experience organizing a running event. Merz recalls the work, logistics, costs, and fear of failure were overwhelming at times. TPC Reverend John Wilkinson advised the group to move forward with faith.

They did.

The first run in 2010 attracted 300 participants and netted about $13,000 for TPC’s hunger ministries and Foodlink. Last year approximately 1,000 runners and walkers brought in $46,000, including $14,500 raised by online crowdfunding (added in as an option in 2014).

Since corporate sponsors completely cover expenses, and the event is planned and staffed by volunteers, all registration fees and every additional dollar raised go directly to local hunger-relief agencies and programs. About 140 church members volunteer—on race day or all year long.

To date, the East Avenue Grocery Run has raised $276,000—along with a side of awareness and compassion. This event has grown to support twenty-five regional hunger relief efforts and keeps adding more.


The Grocery Run in a nutshell

This year’s tenth annual Grocery Run on November 2 features the Wegmans & Constellation Brands 5K (a timed race) and the Marathon Financial Family Mile, both requiring a registration fee. There is a free “Boogie for Broccoli” children’s fun run sponsored by SMP Corp. Walkers are welcome, and participants have ranged from four to eighty-four years.

When registering, either online or in person, you can join an established team for one of twenty-five food cupboards or create a new team for any local nonprofit hunger organization of your choice.

But “you aren’t required to affiliate with a team,” says Ellen Rye, codirector of the Grocery Run with Jenny Hutkowski since 2014. “Most people participate because they love running, and the Grocery Run is a well-organized, family-friendly event with an urban course and an amazing afterparty.”

If runners don’t join a team, their registration fees and any additional donations are distributed to all the designated pantries.

The South Wedge Food Program (SWFP) recruits a large team from local churches to support its emergency food cupboard, community garden, and holiday food baskets. Last year sixty people ran, and SWFP received $6,635 as a result of its team’s registration fees and fundraising efforts.

“The Grocery Run offers the ‘infrastructure’ of a large fundraising event, which would be difficult for many small food programs to create on their own,” Rye explains. “The beauty is, they can leverage our event and online fundraising platform to raise a lot of money for the important work they do.”

 Wegmans Food Markets signed on as the Grocery Run’s first sponsor in 2010. “You can’t have a grocery run without Wegmans!” says Linda Lovejoy, Wegmans community relations manager.

The company continues to support the event with an annual sponsorship contribution and donated water bottles. A large team of Wegmans employees—typically 130 people—run and walk for Foodlink or volunteer at the event.

All runs begin and end at Third Presbyterian Church on East Avenue at Meigs Street. And despite the inevitable wet, chilly November weather, a festive atmosphere always abounds. “Weather conditions are not always ideal,” Rye cheerfully admits. Lori Molinari, corporate space planning manager at Wegmans, has run this 5K several times with the Wegmans team. “Weather won’t keep the diehard runners away,” says Molinari. “I don’t recall this race ever being on a sunny morning.”

Some participants dress up in elaborate food costumes and there is a giant tented postrace party featuring delicious food provided by local eateries such as Juan and Maria’s Empanadas, Java’s Café, and Balsam Bagels. Foodlink collects nonperishable food items and doles out an equal number of raffle tickets for chances to win prizes donated by local businesses.

And when the race is over?

“There are so many people struggling to put food on the table for themselves or their families,” says Molinari. “I make it a point to donate to area food pantries on several different occasions throughout the year.” She views the East Avenue Grocery Run as an opportunity to spread the message to others. From her perspective, if everyone donated just a couple of items or dollars, the “impact would be amazing.”  


Nancy E. McCarthy is a freelance writer reporting on a wide range of topics for print publications, websites, and corporate clients. McCarthy, also a certified exercise instructor and community volunteer, lives in Canandaigua with her family and two magnificent Newfoundland dogs. Contact her at [email protected].

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