Rod Shain, the volunteer director of the Maryville Ministry Center food pantry, had just one word for this community's response to the annual "Feinstein Challenge" fundraiser.
"Phenomenal," Shain said. "We have done better every year. It was just phenomenal."
When all the cash was counted and all the food was weighed − in-kind donations of non-perishable food items are valued at $1 per pound for bookkeeping purposes − this year's drive netted $72,786, essentially half the pantry's $150,000 annual operating budget.
That's about $7,000 more than last year's total and will go a long way toward keeping Ministry Center shelves stocked during the summer months when the level of donations − but not the level of need − tends to drop before picking up again as the holidays approach in the fall.
Actually, the name "Feinstein Challenge" is a little misleading. Held during March and April, the fundraiser bears the name of philanthropist Alan Shawn Feinstein, who made a fortune selling coins and other collectibles by mail-order and online.
Feinstein initiated the challenge in 1996 by offering food pantries and other nutritional assistance organizations nationwide a chance to win a portion of $1 million based on the effectiveness of local fundraising efforts.
Over the past 16 years, the challenge has generated more than $1.5 billion for hunger relief nationwide, but Maryville's share of the million-dollar pie typically amounts to only a few hundred dollars.
The drive's real value is as a publicity peg for local fundraising efforts, which Shain said have grown increasingly effective since 2006, when the initiative produced $15,000 in cash and in-kind donations.
"Everybody in the community gets behind us on this," Shain said.
He described the Feinstein Challenge's impact on the center's ability to provide nutritional assistance to between 200 and 400 families each month as "huge," both in terms of donated foodstuffs and cash.
"It's not only the food (donations), but the money probably helps even more by allowing us to purchase food though the Second Harvest Community Food Bank," Shain said
Buying from Second Harvest, which serves pantries throughout northwest Missouri, allows the Ministry Center to stretch its budget, since the organization offers food at well below wholesale prices.
"I can spend a dollar, and get a lot more than a dollar's worth of food," Shain said.
The timing of the drive is crucial, since it provides resources for the Ministry Center's summer "Brown Bag" program, which distributes parcels of "child friendly," easily prepared food to families whose children qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches.
Unlike Backpack Buddies, which offers similar parcels for weekend consumption during the school year, Brown Bag provides each child in a given family with enough food for one simple meal five days a week.
Shain said typical Brown Bags contain things like cereal, breakfast bars, SpaghettiOs, peanut butter, crackers and jelly that can be prepared by children while their parents are at work.