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's a frigid, Fargo-like morning in New Hope, Minn., and the Country Kitchen on 42nd Avenue is crammed with hungry folks who've just arrived from the Crystal Evangelical Free Church's worship service. Clean-shaven captains of industry wait in the lobby with their well-heeled wives, most of whom are wrapped in designer fur. The women hug and air-kiss. The men trade handshakes and G-rated Norwegian jokes. Toddlers fidget in their Sunday best, while teenagers clutch their leather-bound copies of the Holy Bible to their varsity letter jackets.

The hostess efficaciously manages the waiting list as waiters scurry past, brows laced in sweat and their serving trays steaming. The whole-grain waffles are especially popular today. Ladled with syrupy fruit, they're sweet as sin--no less appetizing than the restaurant's glistening omelettes or soggy hash browns, but easier on the waistline. They fill you up without slowing you down--just like the Word.

All around the standing crowd, tables buzz with caffeinated banter:

Think the Vikings will beat the Cardinals in the playoff this afternoon? Oh, sure. And that quarterback, that Randall Cunningham! Now he's a man of God, a role model's role model.

Did you see Diana Pierce's Christmas concert last month? It's so good to have her as a member. That station where she works, they always make sure to deliver a little good news with the rest.

Ever noticed how many folks from the inner city are moving into Crystal? With so many, you know, Hispanic families coming out this way, so many mothers on welfare, well, there is bound to be trouble.

At Richard Proudfit's table, though, there is precious little time for such suburban prattle. This 69-year-old, longtime member of Crystal Evangelical doesn't waste his days deciphering the sports page. On the rare occasions when he does channel-surf for news, the self-made multimillionaire is more apt to settle on Pat Robertson's 700 Club than the dispiriting feed from a local affiliate. And the new neighbors? Dick Proudfit doesn't give a tinker's damn if you're "black, brown, blue, or green." All he cares about is feeding the planet's famished children. It's his obsession.

"Just consider the Ukraine," he says as a preamble to grace. "It's the breadbasket of Europe, and the children are starving to death. Starving to death! Dumb, dumb, dumb."

Marcie Proudfit, Dick's wife of 42 years, the couple's 27-year-old daughter Katie,

and her fiancé Mike Rundell have heard this soliloquy before, hundreds of times on as many Sunday mornings. But they're rapt anyway, an Amen chorus.

"How can you not be proud of him?" Katie wonders.

"He never slows down. Never," Marcie adds, shaking her head in mock exasperation.

The future son-in-law speaks for the congregation: "It's amazing."

The "it" to which Rundell refers is Feed My Starving Children, a local charity with a 1998 budget of around $500,000 that quietly, almost anonymously ships food to developing and war-torn nations around the world, with Proudfit as its visionary head. Housed in a nondescript warehouse in New Hope, the nonprofit is Proudfit's attempt to honor the divine, built up in response to a direct order, he says, from the Lord.

In just over a decade, Proudfit has nearly single-handedly perfected, packaged, and distributed to humanitarian organizations in 28 nations his "fortified rice-soy casserole." As a result, hundreds of thousands of children around the globe have been fed FMSC meals. Last year alone, with contributions approaching $416,000, FMSC records show that nearly 10,000 volunteers were recruited from schools and churches across the nation to staff the New Hope facility for the express purpose of packaging food. As a result, 2.3 million individual meals were served in many of the world's neediest countries, including Haiti, Venezuela, and India.

Proudfit believes this record level of production at FMSC is just "a drop in the bucket--just a beginning." Forty thousand children, he says, starve to death daily. "That's 40,000 meals a day, every day. How do I do that? I keep asking the Lord, and he keeps trying to tell me."

 

 

Before digging into his breakfast, Proudfit abruptly changes the conversation's direction: The year 2000. As of today, the stroke of midnight is still more than 11 months away. That's 50 weeks and four days to go before the new millennium. And that means, if what's being predicted by some is true, computers on the blink, massive shutdown, global gridlock. The demise of the world as we know it. Y2K.

In a room full of Evangelicals, chatting up the prospect of a man-made millennial apocalypse seems no more remarkable than ordering bacon with your eggs. But for Proudfit, Y2K isn't a phenomenon to be dreaded. It's a sign from God.

Four months ago, on the advice of a friend, Proudfit traveled to a Y2K convention in Dallas, where people were congregating to plan for the worst--no electricity, no fresh water, no big brother to bail the little guy out. He figured a few attendees might be interested in buying FMSC's nonperishable package--the casserole in a bag--so he brought along 300 of them. He sold out in two hours. In particular, survivalists methodically stockpiling their basements with essentials were taken by the foodstuff's nutritional value, easy prep instructions, and long shelf-life. With the specter of America's supermarkets going berserk with the rest of the nation--and for God knows how long--Proudfit's just-add-water meals looked like a recipe for survival.

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.

"We went down to Venezuela this past year and met the Nigerian Ambassador," Proudfit says, pushing his untouched plate forward and folding his napkin. "We were in this beautiful home, having dinner. It was just a social affair. But by the end of the evening, we were down on our knees, down on the floor praying. Tears were running from his eyes. To this day, I bet he remembers being on the floor, praying about the children starving in Nigeria. Because that's where his true heart is. Not to just politely shake someone's hand, but to figure out what really moves them--that's my job."

 

 

As a young man, Proudfit says he had no idea that "God was alive." He didn't set foot inside a church until he was a teenager. Since early on in his life, though, he's been ambitious, driven by the work ethic of his generation. "My father was a workaholic. I'm a workaholic. Seven days a week, 24 hours a day," Proudfit readily admits, with the signature dash of hyperbole no one in his circle faults him for.

He doesn't talk much about his late father, or his life as an only child, except to say that it was hard-scrabble. His father was a saloon keeper in St. Paul at a time when liquor and organized crime were synonymous. Listen all you like, you won't hear any anecdotes from that era, no vivid details. Just vague phrases like "rough stuff--rough, rough stuff." "What's important," he'll tell you, "is that my father wanted something better for his son. When I was in the fifth grade, he sent me to a private school."

While in high school at Breck, Proudfit earned a spot on the all-state basketball team while pulling down mediocre grades. After graduation he attended a pre-military-academy prep school in Minneapolis with the hope of improving his academic standing, then, in 1951, went to Kings Point--a training academy for the Merchant Marines. For 12 months he sailed from Italy to Spain to Morocco, loading fuel onto American bombers bound for the Korean War, and shipping munitions to Yugoslavia. (To this day, he daydreams of traveling around the world on his own boat. He could afford it, but there's so little time, so many children....)

After coming ashore, Proudfit married, spent a couple of years teaching wannabe cadets at his old prep school, then took a job in sales at a custom molding business in St. Louis Park. Six years later, in 1961, he started his own plastics company out of a double garage in Wayzata, molding parts for some of the first desktop calculators. By 1963, business for Proudfit's Cardinal Industries--a custom plastic and rubber parts producer still in operation--was booming.

Every six months, Proudfit says, he and his associates expanded the business twofold. At the end of the 1960s, small towns in Texas and South Dakota--hoping to create blue-collar jobs and solidify their tax base--were busy wooing Cardinal away from Minnesota. When a Milwaukee company approached Proudfit with an emergency order that needed to be turned around in a matter of days, he moved into action and relocated his employees to Aberdeen, S.D. Within 48 hours, Cardinal had a production line up and running.

It's this kind of opportunism, Proudfit says, that eventually led Cardinal to build a trio of plants and employ hundreds. And though he won't be specific about numbers, the company made him a wealthy man by the mid-'70s: a millionaire.

 

 

Proudfit's favorite story has become a sort of legend among born-again Christians who've heard it. And who knows? Thousands more, come the dawn of 2000, may be telling the tale by candlelight as they munch on Future Foods' fortified rice.

In 1974, Proudfit's frantic pace began to worry his wife and four young daughters. They wanted him, at age 45, to slow down. But it was not, and still is not, in Proudfit's character to lounge around on a beach somewhere. So, in an attempt to placate his family and still keep moving, he embarked on an extended working vacation in Honduras, where he says a crew of American physicians had gone to assist in the cleanup after Hurricane Fifi. It seemed the ideal compromise: Proudfit would get to travel, something he'd enjoyed since his days as a sailor, and as a part of the deal, he would also get a chance to help the less fortunate. These trips to Honduras became annual events.

"I was a good Sunday-morning Christian," Proudfit says of that time. "But I didn't know God." By 1984, it was time for an introduction: "One evening I was driving back to the village in our van, all alone on this bumpy, deserted road, and I heard a voice. It said, 'Stop the car.' And I thought, 'Wow, I'm losing my cookies. Bellevue, here I come.' Then the voice came again: 'Get out.'

I sat with my hands frozen on the wheel. 'This isn't real. This isn't real life,' I thought. Finally, I opened the door and stepped out onto the road. The voice said, 'Look up.' And I saw 8,000-foot mountains. I saw lush, green vegetation. I saw white clouds nestled in those mountains. The voice said, 'I made all of this for you.'

"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.

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."

Much like the nuclear arms race of the 1950s, the widespread uncertainty surrounding Y2K is causing reasonable people to disagree about the dangers of a programming bug. It has also led a growing minority to adopt a bomb-shelter mentality--unplug the PC, settle in, and stock up. Of this contingent, some no doubt haunt the social fringes--paranoid survivalists, religious zealots, armed patriots. But there are also plenty of everyday citizens who see the speculation as a catalyst for civic unity. It is these people, Proudfit believes, who will be most attracted to Future Foods Inc.

Karen Anderson, author of 10 Things Every Woman Must Do Now to Keep Her Family Safe, seconds the notion. She is encouraging her readers to check out Proudfit's casserole, not only because of its nutritional value, but because she figures the company isn't in it just to turn a quick buck. "I'm very excited about an organization I've found that I think is, literally, doing a world of good," Anderson tells those who visit her Web site, www.y2kwomen.com. "A portion of the proceeds of each sale goes to support FMSC to feed starving children. So in my opinion there is a double bonus of meeting needs right now and meeting needs in the not too distant future!"

When Proudfit hears about the fellow in Oregon who sold those two houses, his brow furrows. Hysteria, he says, will be the end of us. "Look, if I told you there was a big bump in the road a few miles from here, you'd be on the lookout. You'd be prepared. That's what I think Y2K will be--a bump," he says, the preacher in him stirring. "People should not go overboard. We should call that person and tell him, 'Look, just prepare for a hiccup. Don't panic.'"

In the end, though, it's a good guess Proudfit won't dial up the Pacific coast. Not only because doing so isn't likely to change the guy's mind, but because it would be bad for business.

 

After finishing breakfast at the Country Kitchen, Dick picks up the tab and the Proudfit family heads for the exit. The next flock of hungry customers waits in the lobby after the 11:00 a.m. service at Crystal Evangelical Church. The women are hugging. The men are trading handshakes. Randall Cunningham's sainthood seems safe for another week. Meanwhile, Proudfit is engaged in conversation about a story that ran on Minnesota Public Radio this morning as he drove to church. It seems China is starting to hunker down for Y2K. The government is recommending that its citizenry begin stockpiling essentials--just in case. China! "Can you believe it?" he asks, already crunching the numbers in his mind. "This thing is just beyond all reality."

Then Proudfit shakes his head, and smiles. Another day closer, another coincidence.

 

Editor's Note: For an account of Proudfit's visit to the Y2K expo in Spokane, Wash., see The Inlander's "A Millennial Christmas Carol" by Larry Shook (12/16/98).

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