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'Taste of NFL's' Heaping Homecoming Helps Kick Hunger

Nearly three decades after the inaugural Taste of the NFL debuted in Minneapolis in 1992, the “Party With a Purpose” came home to Minnesota.

Nearly three decades after the inaugural Taste of the NFL debuted in Minneapolis in 1992, the "Party With a Purpose" came home to Minnesota.

On the eve of Super Bowl LII, hundreds of guests wined and dined for a great cause and, together with the season-long Kick Hunger Challenge, raised more than $1 million to support hunger relief across the country.

"To quote another Minnesotan, 'There's no place like home,' " said Taste of the NFL founder Wayne Kostroski. "This is really terrific. I knew that Minnesotans were really excited and pumped up about coming back, but I didn't realize the intensity and the size of that."

Added Kostroski: "We've got hometown talent, we know this area, and Minnesota has been waiting a long time for this to come home."

Local companies stepped up as sponsors for the event, and Chef Thomas Boemer (Revival; Corner Table) jumped at the chance to be involved.

Boemer represented at the Vikings table, where he served chicken and wild rice ballotine. He was joined by Vikings player host, Hall of Fame guard Randall McDaniel.

"To be able to work with [the other chefs], raise money toward hunger [relief], it's this huge family that comes together, and it's an absolutely amazing experience," Boemer said. "I think for us, all the work is leading up, leading up, leading up – and then when you finally lift the gates and the people come here, it's this great party.

"And everything you eat and drink is producing food for people in need," Boemer added. "It's just amazing."

Each of the NFL teams was represented by a chef, a current or former player – including Hall of Famers – and a signature food item. Guests sampled food, snapped photos and received autographs from their favorite athletes and had the opportunity to bid on various memorabilia. All proceeds from ticket and merchandise sales, in addition to the silent auction, will directly benefit food banks in all 32 NFL cities.

This year's Taste of the NFL hosts were former Vikings linebacker Ben Leber and Andrew Zimmern, Travel Channel star who has established his home in Minnesota.

"I don't want to put a damper on the party, but as we are enjoying all of this incredible food and wine, 25 percent of Americans don't know where their next meals are coming from," Zimmern said. "And it's not as if they're segregated in some far-flung part of the country. These are our neighbors and our friends; they're people right in front of us; they're families that have taken in grandparents in their aging years. It's someone who loses a job and has to decide between rent, medicine or food."

Added Zimmern: "There's a stigma attached with hunger in America – that those who are hungry don't want to talk about it."

Zimmern went on to encourage guests to enjoy themselves at the party but to be aware of the cause that their money was going toward – and to not stop there.

"I would like every single person here to call up somebody on the phone tomorrow who wasn't here tonight and tell them, 'We have to kick hunger in the butt.' It's no longer a national embarrassment – it's a national crime that in the greatest culture in the history of the world, we can't feed all of our children and our fellow human beings and give them the respect and dignity that they need to be successful in life," Zimmern said. "So please join all of us – the chefs, the players, our staff, our volunteers – in making hunger the No. 1 kitchen table issue in 2018 for all of us."

Leber said it felt like a "feather-in-your-cap" moment to see the evening come together after months of planning and preparation.

He also shared that he himself learned a lot about the realities of hunger in Minnesota and the efforts of organizations like Second Harvest Heartland to put an end to the issue.

"There was a lot I didn't know," Leber said. "Having had a chance to go to Second Harvest Heartland and see their operations and see some of their warehouses, it is an outstanding amount of food and space that they need just to have all the resources to distribute out to the local food shelves.

"You hear a number or hear the weight of something that's being distributed, and you can't really quantify that in your mind until you see it – and they're not even at a hundred percent as far as people that they can service," Leber continued. "So we have a lot more room to grow – we still have a lot more we can do and people we can serve. But it is a monumental feat, and they're doing a tremendous job."

NFL teams served dishes that put a unique spin on food fitting for their region. Some of my favorite menu items included the Broncos (Szechuan grilled Colorado elk, smoky eggplant puree, kumquat marmalade), Ravens (Maryland tomato crab soup, crab cake and smoked corn confetti) and the Cardinals (hot fried chicken, pickled celeriac and blue cheese crema on a King's Hawaiian Roll).

In addition to NFL figures, other well-known faces also participated in the evening, including Miss America 2018 Cara Mund and the members of the rock band O.A.R.

Viking Esera Tuaolo and Ring of Honor member Scott Studwell, who was a part of the original Taste of the NFL in 1992, joined McDaniel as Vikings Legends in attendance. Studwell also enjoyed catching up with former teammate Jan Stenerud, who was the first placekicker to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Stenerud said it was "pretty easy" to commit to the evening, where he joined current Panthers kicker Graham Gano in giving guests tips on kicking.

"It's the 'Party With a Purpose,' and it raises a lot of money for a great cause," Stenerud said. "So it really feels good to be here. It's a fun evening, and it makes you feel good that you're helping out a little bit."

He added that attending the event in Minnesota was also special.

"I only spent two years (1984-85) here, but when I started watching football at Montana State – having come from Norway – and saw the Vikings on television, I thought, 'I hope I get to play for them one of these years.' And I did, so it's fun," Stenerud said.

Leber said that he was grateful for his involvement as a player in "Community Tuesdays," an initiative started by former Vikings Head Coach Dennis Green to encourage athletes to give back.

"It's a good feeling when, for six days out of the week we concentrate so much on ourselves … but you have one day where you tell yourself to go and reflect and go help out," Leber said. "You see the impact that the [NFL] shield and logo can have on people, and you feel it's vitally important to keep doing that."

Fans are encouraged to continue their support for Taste of the NFL's mission to end hunger by donating today to their favorite NFL team's fundraising page online at *******.*

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