This is no football rivalry, not a showdown on the basketball court or a race to the finish line.

The 11 high schools in the Lincoln area that signed on for this competition are in for something weightier.

Think pounds — thousands of them, in boxes and sacks and bins that translate into breakfasts and lunches and dinners.

This is a food drive run by high school students competing for the benefit of their communities.

“One thing I’m really excited about is we’ve got schools from the southeast area, and they’re just excited and anxious to be a part of this,” said Nancy Becker, who retired in 2011 as principal of North Star High School and is coordinating Lincoln's first Southeast Nebraska Student Hunger Drive.

The high schools that have committed to the drive to collect food for the Food Bank are both big and small — from Union College’s College View Academy to Lincoln Public School’s North Star.

“They’re coming together to really show that high school kids do care and that there is an important mission they need to carry out,” Becker said.

The hunger drive is the outgrowth of a project that began more than 20 years ago in Davenport, Iowa.

Pete and Mary Pohlmann, who owned a car dealership in Davenport, began the drive in 1986, said their daughter Sarah Johnson.

“It was a difficult fall,” she said. “No one was buying cars and instead of spending money on advertising, they decided to put it toward a philanthropic cause.”

They loved the idea of students giving back, so they got the high schools together and challenged students to channel their school rivalries into something philanthropic, Johnson said.

The first year, six or seven schools collected 29,000 pounds of food they brought into the car dealership and weighed on bathroom scales. After seven years, the drive had grown so big that they created a non-profit, got sponsors and moved it out of the car dealership.

The goal is two-fold: to help people in need, and to instill a sense of philanthropy in students, Johnson said.

The Quad City drives have collected more than a million pounds of food some years, Johnson said.

“Students get interviewed afterward and they don’t talk about who they beat, they talk about how all the schools came together and it was a united effort,” she said.

A few years ago, the Pohlmanns decided to go even bigger. They got a grant and started a food drive in Charlotte, N.C., run by Johnson’s brother, who was living there. Then it expanded to South Bend, Ind. Now it’s come to Lincoln.

Since 1986, the food drives have collected more than 15 million pounds of food, Johnson said.

Now, with a grant from Davenport's non-profit to help get them started, Lincoln-area students will add to that amount. They are off to a good start: Lincoln has the most schools of any city in the first year of its drive.

Johnson said they look for communities that are similar to the Quad Cities, places the family has a connection.

Lincoln’s connection is Journal Star Publisher Julie Bechtel, who was on the hunger drive board in Davenport when she was publisher at the Quad-City Times. Now she’s helping organize the drive in Lincoln.

Students not only begin to understand the importance of serving the community but learn how to organize a large event, said Becker, the Lincoln drive coordinator.

“It’s not just ‘here’s Nancy Becker telling you what to do,’ it’s ‘what can you do to get your community’s attention,’” she said.

Christina Laubenthal, who graduated from high school in Davenport and now attends Creighton University, said she participated in the drives for many years.

Laubenthal, who spoke at a Thursday luncheon for sponsors at People's City Mission, said she remembers trick-or-treating for food on Halloween, using pizza parties as incentives, getting a pencil for the first can of green beans she donated in grade school. And over the years, learning the importance of helping others.

"What we are really doing is starting to use the word 'we' in our sentences," she said. "We are there for you, if you don't have enough to eat tonight."

Reach Margaret Reist at 402-473-7226 or