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.

"It was an awesome sight. I got down on my knees and cried. The tears came and came. I didn't know what it meant then, but I know now. I was being cleansed."

For three years Proudfit kept that night in Honduras to himself. He believed what he had experienced was real--a rapturous visitation--but he didn't know what it meant or what to do about it. More vague about this three-year period than about his childhood, Proudfit will say only that he was on the verge of "cracking up."

Finally, all alone at work on a Saturday in 1987, he ran out of patience. He didn't get down on his knees to pray for an answer this time. He erupted, raging at God: "Tell me what you want! Tell me now!"

The next day, just before sunup, Proudfit says a bolt of lightning shot across his bedroom. In a moment, he was standing at the foot of his bed. He would have his answer. "It's three in the morning, I'm in my skivvies, and I hear this voice. 'Feed my starving children. It will be package food. It will go by airplane. And 5 million dollars.'"

 

 

Four commandments: Feed my starving children. Package food. Airplane. Five million.

As Proudfit readies to talk Y2K on this bright, subzero morning with Jerry Johnson--a friend of FMSC and technical services manager at Ryt-Way Industries--Proudfit pulls out a box of markers and scrawls the words on a dry-erase board hanging in Feed My Starving Children's conference room, which is sparsely decorated with hand-me-down office furniture. He's so lost in thought, so consumed by the "awesome power" of God's wisdom, he misspells the word "package" as "packige." It's a forgivable transgression. Today's sermon isn't about the written word. It's about listening.

"Resistance," he sighs. "Resistance, resistance, resistance." When Proudfit finally got his answer, his marching orders--his calling, even--he "left the Lord in the dust." Dipping into his share of the profits at Cardinal Industries, he frantically began buying up food and paying for its transport to countries in need. "Beans, beans, beans," he huffs, picking up the pace. "Wheat, wheat, wheat." For three years, Proudfit ignored the second commandment. He shipped crates of "breads, buns, cakes, and granola" from continent to continent. But it wasn't working. Much of the food spoiled on the way to its destination or was derailed by corrupt government officials. The few morsels that did make it proved insufficient. With bellies full of starch, Proudfit says, children weren't getting their daily essentials. He was failing. He wasn't listening. "Resistance, resistance," he repeats, almost in awe of his own stubbornness.

Then, on a flight home from Aberdeen, Proudfit found himself in the company of a businessman who supplied nursing homes and hospitals around Minnesota with dehydrated-food. As they talked about the mechanics of packaging ready-to-make meals, a light went on. Proudfit calls the path-crossing yet another "coincidence," a word he uses frequently when talking to secular audiences; a word that, to him, means miracle.

He consulted a food scientist in Chicago, and together they developed what he has come to call the "miracle package." A healthy scoop of enriched, long-grain rice is mixed with soy flour, enhanced with vitamins and minerals, and spiced up with chicken flavor and an orange-colored mix of dehydrated vegetables. Properly sealed in a transparent plastic pouch, it will not spoil. All that's needed to prepare the day's worth of essentials (calcium, carbohydrates, fat, dietary fiber) is six cups of boiling water and 20 minutes.

With that innovation, FMSC blossomed. Proudfit took to traveling the globe to form alliances with feeding organizations, many of them run by Christian missionaries. Some of these advocates agreed to tap their budgets to help FMSC buy raw materials; others counted on Proudfit to raise money from donors around the Twin Cities. He recruited volunteers willing to package meals for delivery. Everything was clicking. Except for one small detail.

Transporting a miracle into troubled regions where political corruption tended to keep economies in chaos--the Middle East, Southeast Asia, the former Soviet Union--proved treacherous, if not altogether unfeasible. On several occasions Proudfit recalls that bureaucrats tried to extort money from FMSC. Want to dock ship in our port? You'll have to pay. Want to use our trucks to haul packages inland? We want a cut. The boats were so slow, the red tape so tangled, that it sometimes took FMSC 10 months to send a shipment to countries such as Mongolia. Proudfit knew the packages should go by plane. Or so the voice had said. But airplanes were often inaccessible or too expensive.

Another coincidence: In 1994, Congress passed something called the Denton Act, a federal law that allowed humanitarian organizations to load their supplies onto American military aircraft for delivery abroad, at no cost. The only prerequisites were that the charities be nonprofits, and serve countries whose current government is officially recognized by the United States. Now, because FMSC has the means to send its packages around the world on colossal C-130 aircraft, large shipments--like those bound for Mongolia--take a week or two at the most to arrive.

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