It may be remembered as the biggest food fight ever waged in Anne Arundel County. Over the last month, South River High and Crofton Middle School battled it out to see which could collect the most food for the needy as part of the annual Harvest for the Hungry "Kids Helping Kids" campaign.
South River beat Crofton by a ton last year - a little more than a ton, of canned goods and food staples. This year, talk has it that Crofton students - outnumbered nearly 2-to-1 by their South River counterparts - resorted to buying 50-pound bags of rice to boost their totals.
"Some store somewhere is missing a lot of rice," said Bruce Michalec, director of the Anne Arundel County Food Bank, whose organization is helping coordinate the "Kids" campaign. "We have pallets full of them."
Truth be told, the showdown of the dueling do-gooders is friendly, more akin to that of ambitious siblings than of bitter enemies.
"It's good for our school spirit," said Crofton Principal Richard Berzinski. "Yes, they want to win, but we have also told them that the chief benefactors are those that are homeless and hungry."
Harvest for the Hungry, a volunteer-run organization that has gathered food for the state's hungry since 1987, started "Kids Helping Kids" in 1991 throughout Maryland public schools to provide students with an opportunity to learn about hunger and collect food for the less fortunate. It also gives them a chance to earn credit toward state-mandated service requirements.
Last year, 211 schools from around the state collected 189,149 pounds of food for distribution by the Maryland Food Bank and its counterparts to community soup kitchens, food pantries and emergency shelters. Thirty-one percent of the people served by emergency food programs are children younger than age 17, organizers said.
This year, Anne Arundel elementary, middle and high school students were challenged to raise 100,000 pounds of food - about double last year's county goal. So far, the Anne Arundel campaign has brought in more than 75,000 pounds, and if the county reaches its goal, it would make up 40 percent of the statewide goal of 250,000 pounds.
"It's just overwhelming to know that these students did such a wonderful job," said Jackie Olson, assistant director of the county food bank. "Even if we don't make the goal this year, I'm just so proud of the students."
But with collections yet to be made from about 20 of the 80 schools involved this year - including from previous top performer South River High - the goal appears well within reach. Last year, 37 schools took part in the campaign and collected more than 56,000 pounds of food, organizers said.
Michalec credited Olson's persistence for the record number of county schools that participated this year.
State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick sent a letter in August to principals throughout Maryland, asking them to support the "Kids Helping Kids" campaign.
Olson then called each school in Anne Arundel to encourage food drive organizers to help meet the goal. She said she reminded them of the campaign's importance and encouraged them to provide student incentives: a pizza party for the classroom that raised the most food, a "Day Out of Uniform" for students at private schools that require them.
Although the campaign officially ended Nov. 3, Olson said some schools are continuing to collect food with the knowledge that winter months are often the hardest for food banks. Maryland food banks need nonperishable food items in nonglass containers - such as canned meats, fish, vegetables, fruits and soup, peanut butter, pasta, and dry cereals and grains.
"The economy is fantastic, but for the lower middle class it hasn't been that good," Michalec said, explaining that it is not just those thought of as poor who may need help and that the need is year-round, not just at Thanksgiving.
Olson said she saw the increased demand for food when she was the food pantry coordinator for Brooklyn Heights United Methodist Church. The need was so great, she said, that the church would often be out of food within 15 minutes of opening its doors.
"It's important for the kids to know that not everyone is fortunate," she said.
Last year, three county schools - South River High, Crofton Middle and Sunset Elementary - finished the campaign as the top achievers in pounds of food collected. With 12,285 pounds, South River also was recognized by Grasmick for collecting the most of any school in the state.
Crofton students won't find out until Tuesday, when food bank organizers are scheduled to make their last pickup from South River's Edgewater campus, if the rice strategy - which helped them raise more than 20,000 pounds of food - was enough to knock the high school from the top this year.
"The suspense is building," said Crofton's Berzinski. "Somebody has to win."
For information on making a donation to the Maryland Food Bank, call 410-947-0404, or visit the Web site at www.mdfoodbank.org.