The Meal at the End of the Millennium

How to answer God's call to feed the world's starving children? Richard Proudfit couldn't figure it out. Then Y2K answered his prayers.

When he returned to Minnesota, Proudfit set about launching the for-profit company Future Foods Inc. Capitalizing on connections made in Dallas with doomsaying authors and worried activists, he printed up a few fliers, continued to network with Y2K chat groups on the Web, hired a staff of eight to fill orders on the FMSC production line's slow days, and waited for the word to spread. It did, like gospel.

By mid-January Future Foods had taken orders for more than 75,000 bags at 58 cents per. Six meals a bag, 36 bags in a box, 33 boxes to a pallet. The New Hope staff couldn't keep up. Proudfit searched for a local plant with the capacity to churn out 100,000 pouches for shipment by the end of February.

No stranger to the marketplace, the master chef says Future Foods' potential over the next 11 months is a frontier without bounds. Profits, by his calculations, could top $5 million by New Year's Eve 1999: The nonstop orders are manna from heaven, he says, " a gift from God," "a miracle."

Proudfit plans to shift more than 90 percent of these net gains directly to his nonprofit work. Should that happen--and at this rate it's hard to argue that it won't--FMSC will be able to run at maximum capacity, producing nearly five million meals a year. More important, Proudfit says, there will finally be enough seed-money to fund his latest dream, that of starting up five satellites around the U.S. and in South American countries. Such an expansion would mean more production facilities, a larger base of volunteers, and a fresh pool of potential private and corporate donors. A few more drops in the bucket, and thousands more children given a reprieve from starvation. "If Future Foods could be the financial arm," he says, gazing out the window of his office, "the magnitude of this could be astronomical. It's beyond all reality."

 

 

It is well past noon on a Thursday in mid-January, and Proudfit hasn't touched his egg roll. He's too busy spinning yarns for a trio of suits from Ryt-Way Industries Inc., the Lakeville-based food-packaging plant that has been contracted to fill Future Foods' inaugural order. Today he's holding court in the back room of a Chinese restaurant tucked inside a New Hope strip-mall. At first glance, the silver-haired businessman comes off like a retired schoolteacher reading children's books aloud at the local public library. His gentle eyes sparkle behind rather unfashionable wire-rimmed spectacles. His plaid flannel shirt is tucked into a pair of bargain-basement khakis and dressed up with a button-down Izod sweater. The autobiography he tells is structured simply, in digestible episodes featuring likable protagonists, tempting antagonists, and an orthodox moral order.

"So there I am, this is just last year, meeting with a Russian commander at a secret military base in the Ukraine. And I'm asking him if we can use his runway to drop off our food." He pauses for effect, then testifies. His Midwestern speech takes on a cadence; slowing down to hook on a phrase, speeding up to shift into declaration. "And I mean this guy, this guy's like ice. He has three stars on his shoulder, there's an armed guard by the desk. And he's sitting there in front of this giant map. He's motionless. I'm talking through my translator, and nothing's working. I mean nothing. And I'm thinking, 'Oh boy!'" Then I asked him, 'Where are you from?' And he blinked. And I turned to my translator and said, 'We've got him. We've got him.'"

Proudfit doesn't sweat, spit, or shout. He has spent a few hundred Sundays in the company of excitable born-again Christians, but there's no table-banging or holy rolling in his telling, no Southern Baptist fire. This is Minnesota, after all.

"Can you imagine what would happen if the United States and Russia got together to feed the world? Instead of pointing guns at each other, instead of sending arms around the world, we could work for peace! And that commander, he could see that. I tell you, it's just awesome. I went places in that country that no one else could go. God was opening the door."

The table is silent. There will be no more business discussed at today's buffet lunch. It's clear that no one here needs convincing: Everyone wants to share in Proudfit's glory. They've been roused. They want to travel, if only for a moment, to a city dump in India, where Proudfit helped to build a clinic. ("The value people put on life was so low there, it was in the pennies. It struck me deep.") They want to meet Proudfit's blackmailers in Russia, who couldn't bend his will. ("Are we going to turn a starving child over to a corrupt government? Or are we going to save that kid from becoming a criminal?") They want to hear about the time their host was mugged in Ethiopia. ("I realized I couldn't be angry with them. They were desperate. They have nothing. Their children are dying. What would you do?") Most of all, the executives who've gathered for a meal with the meal-maker want to hear how Proudfit, one of them, uses a capitalist's modus operandi to do the Lord's work. They want to know how, under the most formidable conditions, he closes the deal.

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