In Grays Harbor County, High School Rivalry Helps Feed Hungry

Nov 27, 2013

If you drive through Grays Harbor County, it’s easy to notice the darkened storefronts and empty homes that signal the area’s economic struggles. But in the county with a poverty rate that's twice the state average, a long-standing rivalry between two high schools feeds the hungry.

For more than a century, the Hoquiam Grizzlies and the Aberdeen Bobcats have maintained one of Washington state’s biggest high school football rivalries. But it’s their rivalry in Food Ball that funds the majority of the county food banks' annual budget.

The Rivalry of Food Ball 

If you drive through Grays Harbor County, it’s easy to notice the darkened storefronts and empty homes that signal the area’s economic struggles. But in the county whose poverty rate is double that of the state average, a long-standing rivalry between two high schools feeds the hungry.

For more than a century, the Hoquiam Grizzlies and the Aberdeen Bobcats have maintained one of Washington state’s biggest high school football rivalries. But it’s their rivalry in Food Ball that funds the majority of the Hoquiam Food Bank’s annual budget.

“Food Ball is a community food drive between Aberdeen and Hoquiam," says Dani Stanton, an Aberdeen High School Bobcat. “We raise money through a 10-day event, collecting money and food for our food banks here in Grays Harbor.”

The effort is much needed in these two communities where some two-thirds of public school students get free or reduced-price lunches, and where more than 20 percent of residents live below the poverty line.

Stanton says the needs at home make Food Ball personal for many.

“A lot of kids we go to school with, you don’t know that they’re affected by Food Ball," she says.

“Some of us are the lucky people," adds classmate Kyle Brewer. "But with Food Ball, we’re making everyone in our community lucky. We’re giving everyone an equal opportunity for happiness, even if it’s just a couple months in the winter.”

‘It’s Like a Full-Time Job’

Food Ball began more than 30 years ago as the brainchild of Hoquiam resident Jill Bellis. At first, the students just collected food. Now, they collect money, too, ringing doorbells, standing outside of shops and getting local businesses to donate.

Hoquiam High senior Taylor Walker says the project is a lot of work.

“I just want to go to bed, in all honesty," Walker says, laughing. “It’s like a full-time job. And work. And school, as well.”

But Walker says the work is well worth the effort. This year, the two schools collected about 15,000 pounds of food and raised more than $100,000.

Retired CPA Harold Warren counts cash at the end of the annual Hoquiam/Aberdeen Food Ball competition. The annual food drive and fundraiser brought in a total of 15,687 pounds of food and $101,428.98.
Retired CPA Harold Warren counts cash at the end of the annual Hoquiam/Aberdeen Food Ball competition. The annual food drive and fundraiser brought in a total of 15,687 pounds of food and $101,428.98.
Credit Ed Ronco / KPLU

“That’s incredible," says Deborah Squires, director of community engagement for Seattle-based Northwest Harvest, the only statewide nonprofit food bank.

“These are high school kids? Send them my way. I’ll employ them all as fundraisers,” says Squires, whose organization handles hundreds of food drives each year. 

Squires says Food Ball organizers are pretty savvy, especially in their decision to collect not just food, but money, too.

“It’s one of the most common questions people ask: Do you would food or money? And my answer is always, ‘Yes. Yes I want food or money,’" she says. "But people say, 'What has the greater impact?' And if they really go to that place, then you can say, ‘Let me tell you what a dollar will get.’”

A dollar for a food bank can feed four people, because they buy food in big volumes, sometimes by the semi-truck. For the average consumer, a dollar will buy a can of soup.

Helping Hundreds of Families

The Food Ball efforts go a long way toward helping organizations like the Hoquiam Food Bank. Linda Borth has been running the place for about 13 years.

“This is a food box for a family of seven plus. It’s for about a week," Borth says. "And it’s probably about 80 pounds when they add in the produce and the frozen meats.”

The food bank, located in a warehouse near downtown Hoquiam, serves 400 families a month. Some are homeless, or jobless. Others—not so much.

“Maybe there’s two working parents," she says. "But it’s not enough to cover what they need to feed their families after they’ve paid the rent, bought the tennis shoes and got the bills.”

Borth says Food Ball will supply a majority of the food bank’s budget for the year.

Representatives of Aberdeen High School (seated, in front) and Hoquiam High School react as Food Ball final totals are read.
Representatives of Aberdeen High School (seated, in front) and Hoquiam High School react as Food Ball final totals are read.
Credit Ed Ronco / KPLU

 So? Who Wins?

Students from each high school recently gathered near the border between the two towns, awaiting the announcement of the winner in this year’s Food Ball game.

Their eyes focused on a pair of trucks waiting just down the block. This is how the winner is announced. The two trucks, each representing a different school, drive down the street. Then the victor’s truck pulls ahead.

The trucks started rolling. The Aberdeen truck pulled in the lead.

Then Hoquiam.

Then Aberdeen.

And then one of the trucks surged forward.

It’s Hoquiam. The Grizzlies, who left the football field disappointed earlier this year, are victors on the Food Ball field. They’re cheering and jumping and making faces at the local newspaper's camera.

Aberdeen students applauded their opponents, and began to head toward their cars. They were the runners up in this contest, but not the loser, says Hoquiam High senior Joel Brydon; as far as Food Ball is concerned, everyone wins.