One in six Americans grapple with hunger.

That disturbing and heartbreaking fact has been a primary motivator for Wayne Kostroski, who has been involved in hunger relief efforts since the mid-1980s.

Twenty-six years ago, when Minneapolis hosted Super Bowl XXVI, Kostroski had an inspired idea: Why not leverage the nation’s largest sporting and media event to raise money and awareness?

It was a right-place/right-time scenario. He was president of the Minnesota Restaurant Association and co-chair of the restaurant committee for the 1992 Super Bowl task force. He’d also spent several years immersed in the local edition of another annual hunger relief fundraiser, Taste of the Nation.

The result was a celebrity-fueled gala party, one that paired an NFL player from each of the league’s teams with a high-profile chef from each team’s city.

The event came together relatively quickly. Kostroski approached the only two NFL players he knew — former Vikings Bob Lurtsema and Scott Studwell — and asked them to make calls (“because no football player would return my call,” he said), and he picked up the phone and reached out to chefs.

“They made 28 calls and got 28 yeses, and I made 28 calls, and got 28 yeses,” said Kostroski. “When you do good things, you meet great people.”

The starry roster included chefs Bobby Flay, Tom Colicchio, Rick Bayless, Nancy Silverton, Jeremiah Tower, Todd English, Stephan Pyles and Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, while the players side featured Archie Manning, Darryl Stingley, Ed White and other marquee names.

Because most venues were already booked — Kostroski started in early November, and game day was Jan. 26 — the first Taste of the NFL was staged in the lobby atrium of the AT&T Building in downtown Minneapolis.

Kostroski, by then already a master of the ask, tracked down a pair of nearby prep kitchens. Founding sponsor Supervalu picked up travel and lodging expenses, everyone donated their time and the chefs tapped their suppliers to donate the food.

The event sold out — forging a tradition that has never altered — and just under 1,100 people paid $75 to attend. That inaugural event raised nearly $100,000 and the proceeds were evenly divided among food banks in all 28 NFL cities.

And that, Kostroski thought, was that.

“But within a few weeks, I started getting calls from players and chefs saying, ‘That was great, and you’re going to do it next year in L.A., right?’ ” he said. “And I was on board.”

Hoping for a record-setter

Fast-forward 26 years, and Kostroski & Co. — a team that includes longtime business partner Mark Haugen — are back at it again in their hometown. This year’s gala is set for Feb. 3 at RiverCentre in St. Paul.

The format hasn’t evolved all that much, although there are now 32 teams — which translates into four more chef/football player pairings, plus the chef from NFL headquarters, who cooks to benefit the food bank in Akron, Ohio.

Another change is that the host city’s food bank now receives 10 to 15 percent of the proceeds, and the remaining funds are divided evenly among the other 32 recipients.

Kostroski doesn’t have a specific financial target for this year’s event. Well, not really.

“I just hope it’s a record,” he said.

This year’s cost of admission is $700, and tables of 10 are $10,000. Those VIP tables sold out in mid-October, and Kostroski said that he expects the remaining tickets to sell out in advance of the event. (Just in case, check availability at tasteofthenfl.com/tickets).

The entire event is designed to raise cash. Once inside, attendees can splurge on raffles and an auction. Hall of Fame kicker Jan Stenerud will host a kicking station (“It’s like one of those golf simulators; you try and kick a field goal,” said Kostroski), and any merchandise that guests use for signed souvenirs — helmets, aprons, footballs — must be purchased on the premises.

“All of that can account for anywhere from $150,000 to $200,000,” said Kostroski. “And every dollar spent inside that building that night goes to the food bank fund.”

This year’s hosts are the Travel Channel’s Andrew Zimmern and ex-Vikings linebacker Ben Leber.

The players roster includes Randall McDaniel, Paul Krause, Mark Schlereth, Willie Buchanon and Morten Andersen, and chefs include James Beard award winners Carrie Nahabedian of Chicago, Justin Aprahamian of Milwaukee, Michael Smith of Kansas City, Robert Del Grande of Houston and Susan Spicer of New Orleans.

“I like to say that it’s the biggest restaurant you’ll ever be in on one night,” said Kostroski. “And the biggest opportunity, from a culinary standpoint, to travel the country in a single night.”

That’s because many chefs focus on some variation of a regional specialty. That’s the case with Thomas Boemer, chef/co-owner of Corner Table and Revival and the chef representing the Vikings. He’s preparing a chicken and mushroom ballotine on wild rice risotto with black truffle.

“I want to represent the North, and the foods we grew up eating and probably take for granted,” he said. “Nobody in Houston or L.A. has probably ever had wild rice, so let’s give them something exotic.”

Raising $25 million in 26 years

Kostroski has been hailed for his efforts. He was the James Beard Foundation’s 2010 recipient of its Humanitarian of the Year award, given “to an individual or organization working in the realm of food who has given selflessly and worked tirelessly to better the lives of others and society at large.”

The honor placed him in some fairly heady company: Paul Newman, Alice Waters, Emeril Lagasse and Ben Greenfield and Jerry Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s.

Ever the entrepreneur — when he’s not selling Taste of the NFL, he’s co-owner of Franklin Street Bakery, a wholesale bread bakery in Minneapolis that supplies restaurants, hotels and institutions in more than 17 states — Kostroski is continually devising new sources of Taste of the NFL revenue.

One idea that caught on is team-sponsored Taste evenings, gathering chefs and players from a specific city, with all proceeds staying in that city.

“We’re up to 11 cities,” said Kostroski. “Cleveland has been doing it for 22 years, and averages $175,000 at their event. In May, Dallas raised $440,000 in one night.”

Another is Saturday’s Supervalu Founders Breakfast, both a reunion for 1992 Taste of the NFL participants and a kickoff event for the big show later that evening. (It’s also at St. Paul’s RiverCentre, starting at 9 a.m.; tickets are $75, at one.bidpal.net/foundersbreakfast)

Then there’s the five-year-old Kick Hunger Challenge. Here’s how it works: Fans can log into kick-hunger-challenge.everydayhero.do, click on the team of their choice, and donate. All proceeds flow to the food bank associated with the team.

“In this network, every dollar donated is worth to up to eight meals,” said Kostroski. “So if someone donates 10 bucks to, say, the Chicago Bears, they’ve potentially created 80 meals. They’re helping, and they’re not even getting their butts off the couch.”

Since 1992, Taste of the NFL has raised a staggering $25 million. Logistically, it’s an enormous effort, one that’s supported by plenty of corporate donations and fueled by the skills, hard work and dedication of nearly 300 people. Many are students, and all, including Kostroski, are volunteers.

“Corny as it sounds, I’ve been pretty darned blessed,” he said. “My life is better than I ever imagined. I can’t write big checks. But if you can create big checks, that feels pretty good.”