Normally, they’re arch rivals.

But Thursday, a day before a crosstown clash of their football teams, students from Woodbury and East Ridge high schools teamed up and worked side by side to fight world hunger.

“It’s nice how we’re doing something good for people we don’t know,” said Tanner Theis, a Woodbury High School senior. “It shows both schools’ character and how we’re willing to go out of the way to help others.”

Hundreds of high schoolers — including students from New Life Academy, also in Woodbury — joined the nation’s largest meal-packing event Thursday at Woodbury’s Bielenberg Sports Center. The four-day effort, sponsored by the Feed My Starving Children organization, aims to assemble and ship 4 million meals to hungry children, many of which will go to orphanages and schools in Nicaragua.

“There’s been no corner of Woodbury untouched,” said Dave Gunnlaugsson, one of the event’s principal planners. “I’ve never seen a scope of something this large before.”

Each two-hour shift will put as many as 1,400 volunteers to work in the cavernous sports center fieldhouse. On Thursday morning, at rows of tables, configured into “packing stations” that accommodate 20 volunteers each, busy hands mixed, packaged and loaded individual meals into boxes. By Sunday, an estimated 20,000 volunteers will have produced 311 tons of food for hungry children.

One of those volunteers was Peter Genheimer, whose father was a missionary.

“I grew up in the southern part of Africa so I know how important this is for people in that part of the world,” said Genheimer, who works for CHS, an agricultural and energy co-op. For many children, he said, the small package of vitamin-fused rice will be their only meal in an entire day. It would be interesting, he said, for Americans to try subsisting on that diet for a month.

Mary Boyd, a “rover” coordinating work at dozens of stations, expressed approval at the efficient teamwork shown by so many people who, before Thursday, didn’t know each other.

“Everybody just came en masse,” she said of the flood of volunteers. “It’s such an organized thing.”

A school truce, for now

As they worked, students from Woodbury and East Ridge high schools chanted back and forth, building school spirit for Friday night’s big game at the East Ridge stadium, a few hundred yards east of the Bielenberg complex.

“It’s really fun to get together before game day and work for a cause,” said Abby Mears, an East Ridge senior who found it inspirational to help children in need. “I hope they know we’re all working for them.”

The schools’ activities directors, Joel Olson of East Ridge and Jason Gonnion of Woodbury, stood side by side watching students mingle in their school colors: Woodbury Royals’ blue and white and East Ridge Raptors’ gold and black.

“They’re still neighbors,” Olson said. “Just because they wear different colors doesn’t mean they can’t be friends and work together.”

Mark Crea is the CEO of Feed My Starving Children, headquartered in Coon Rapids. The 4 million meals made in Woodbury, he said, will set a national record, exceeding by 1 million the previous record set in San Antonio.

“There is something special about Minnesota,” said Crea, gesturing to the sea of volunteers in hairnets. “The people of Minnesota simply have the passion and the heart for so many things.”

Money to buy ingredients comes from private donors, and 92 percent is spent on food, he said. Volunteers combine rice with soy, dehydrated vegetables and a chicken-tasting powder that contains 20 vitamins and minerals.

“It’s very rounded, highly nutritious,” Crea said.

Once meals are shipped, he said, “getting the food past the troublemakers, the scoundrels, is a huge project” because of attempts to intercept shipments in developing countries. He said 99.6 percent of the food gets to its intended destination. “As a Christian organization, we believe God protects this food.”

At the back of the hubbub, Clare Schisler of Woodbury was coordinating volunteers of all ages who, sitting at a long table, produced a never-ending flow of newly labeled plastic bags.

She commended the hundreds of teenagers bustling about the fieldhouse for joining a cause to fight world hunger.

“It’s awesome because they’re bringing busloads of kids over from different schools,” she said. “It’s bigger than themselves.”