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.

But what of the $5 million? Proudfit worked the puzzle over and again in his imagination, dreaming for an answer as he jetted around the globe. He began laying plans to sell Cardinal Industries by the end of 1999 (the deal is still in the works). Maybe that's where the money was supposed to come from. He didn't know. Or would it come as a donation from a corporate friend? He waited for a sign. Finally, with the end of the century less than two years away, he caught wind of Y2K.

Maybe, just maybe, by selling boil-and-eat nutrition to those convinced that the world is about to hit a technological wall, FMSC could raise enough money to hang its hopes on more than a shoestring. After the convention in Dallas, Proudfit had no more doubts. God had spoken again. He must move, and fast. The urgency was like that in Cardinal's early days, when everything seemed to fall into place overnight. "This is a win-win situation," Proudfit says. "God has shown us where to find the $5 million. Now if we use that money wisely, we can really start talking about feeding the world. We can also help people feel prepared for whatever might happen."

Ryt-Way's Jerry Johnson is intrigued by the scheme. In the course of their meeting, he presents Proudfit with the red-and-white packaging he has developed for Future Foods Inc., pro bono. After talking for an hour, the two shake hands. "Any time someone is operating from a vision of God, it inspires you like nothing else," Johnson says. In February, Ryt-Way will fulfill its agreement to package 100,000 pouches to sell via Future Foods. If all goes well, they'll do it again and again, until the clock strikes midnight.

It's no secret that Proudfit's enthusiasm is his enterprises' greatest asset. It can, however, burn wild. Linda Dehn, the director of production and volunteers at FMSC, says her boss can be a stubborn entrepreneur who doesn't brook pessimism well. "He's so charismatic. Most men of his age aren't that exciting, that motivated," Dehn says. "But some of us have to be more realistic than Dick. I do see limits for myself and our volunteers. He has a real hard time with that--when you try to put a cap on things."

He knows that Dehn is right. But he is also mindful of the fact that there are only so many volunteers willing to help, only so many pouches one assembly line can produce. That's why he can't stop thinking about Y2K: If Future Foods could crank out enough product in the next 10 months, if there were enough profit to be made before the century's end, if only...

 

 

Katie Proudfit has quit her job in insurance and come to work for the new family business. Her gig seemed simple enough: Wait for a handful of people to stumble across Future Foods Inc., answer the phone now and then, field a few questions, and log orders as they come in. Right about now, though, the former ski bum is probably pining for an early spring break. The ringing never stops. A church in Southern Minnesota wants to order a pallet's worth of pouches to feed its flock come D day. A woman in Kansas is curious to know how much food it would take to get her family of four through a blacked-out winter. A man in Oregon says he has just sold his two $100,000 homes, and plans to use the cash to stockpile food for his community; his order alone could generate more than $10,000 for FMSC. Father wanders the office encouraging visitors to tithe for the needy, while daughter is on the horn helping America prepare for anarchy.

As a media phenomenon, Y2K is just getting its legs. Decades ago, in the computer industry's fledgling years, shortsighted programmers encoded stacks of software and millions of microchips with two digits instead of four (treating 1999 as 99). As a result, some if not all of this technology--if left uncorrected--is set to confuse January 1, 2000 with January 1, 1900. Prompted by corporate conglomerates such as AT&T, along with service branches of the U.S. government (including the postal service and the IRS), many companies have fixed their glitches. Large banks, computer giants, and utility companies such as Northern States Power have already begun assuring customers that their systems will be corrected in plenty of time.

With many remedial measures now in place, a good share of those who follow the computer industry believe the potential fallout from Y2K is bound to be minimal. As a rule, newspapers such as the New York Times are siding with the skeptics. Yes, they concede, there will be digital confusion--leading to minor inconveniences for a few days in early January. Credit cards with a 2000 expiration date won't work in every processor, some personal hard drives will crash, a scattering of smaller businesses may experience enough trouble to prompt a sneeze on Wall Street. That's all.

Meanwhile, other watchdogs (including Minneapolis's own Utne Reader) are busy anticipating a worst-case scenario, marketing survival guides, and encouraging those who can to stockpile essentials. Their rationale is based both on volume and the anatomy of a chain reaction. For instance, if traffic lights malfunction, there could be an increase in car accidents. If 911 calls are delayed because of a computer glitch, ambulances will be slow to respond, injuries will become more serious, hospitals will get backlogged. Dire forecasts exist for almost every facet of society, from food delivery to air traffic control. "Correcting programs requires time-consuming close inspection by skilled programmers, custom-crafted solutions for virtually every computer system, and arduous testing," former Wilson Center Fellow Edward Tenner cautioned last autumn. "And time is running out."

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