Most Minnesotans have never heard of Richard Proudfit. But last month, the Twin Cities philanthropist joined the ranks of Microsoft founder Bill Gates, actor Paul Newman and former First Lady Rosalynn Carter in receiving the prestigious Jefferson Award for public service.
Proudfit won the award for creating a packaged meal that has been consumed by millions of poor children around the world. The founder of Feed My Starving Children in 1987, he went on to create Kids Against Hunger. Combined, the nonprofits will deliver 1 billion meals this year.
Proudfit's battle against hunger has taken him to war zones across the globe, where he's risked his life to bring food to the starving. Back in the United States, he has overseen the creation of 100 satellite programs that package meals for distribution by the U.S. Navy, global relief groups and more.
"The criteria for the award is there has to be something extraordinary about the person and extraordinary about the impact," said Sam Beard, who founded the Jefferson Awards in 1972 with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and then-U.S. Senator Robert Taft Jr.
"Here is a man who was an engineer, a scientist, an entrepreneur. He wouldn't quit until he had it [the meals formula and distribution] right. And he's responsible for nearly 1 billion meals."
Proudfit, sitting at the modest Kids Against Hunger headquarters in New Hope, displayed the gold medallion he received at the White House last month. He pointed to a poster on the wall of a young Honduran boy with sad brown eyes, recalling his first encounter with emaciated children on a 1974 trip to Honduras following Hurricane Fifi.
"I saw thousands of children dying all around me," recalled Proudfit, 82. "Right now I can hear their screaming. I couldn't handle it. I had to do something when I got back to Minnesota."
Food for millions
Proudfit set forth to create an original food product to provide all the nutritional requirements for malnourished children. He pulled together scientists from General Mills, Cargill and other companies to create a formula to help children thrive.
The group settled on a mix of rice, soy, dehydrated vegetables and chicken flavoring -- plus vitamins and minerals -- that is still used today. He then launched and funded Feed My Starving Children, a nonprofit based in Coon Rapids.
But with the United Nations reporting more than 800 million people in a state of chronic hunger, Proudfit wanted to spread that packaging model across the nation to feed even more. So in 1999, he left his first nonprofit to create Kids Against Hunger.
The number of churches and nonprofits that stepped forward to pack soared from two in 1999 to almost 100 today. The number of meals jumped from 2 million in 1999 to 40 million last year, packed by 923,000 volunteers.
"Right now the USS Swift is carrying our meals on the coast of Africa," Proud said, pointing to a world map in the conference room. "We sent 4 million meals to the Dadaab refugee camp on the border of Kenya and Somalia," he said, moving his finger north.
Meanwhile, many satellite groups send their meals directly to poor nations. The Mankato group will send more than 1 million meals to countries such as Haiti and Guatemala this year.
Proudfit, an energetic octogenarian, jokes that his travels take him to "some of the worst places in the world" -- slums, garbage dumps and war zones. He recalls narrowly escaping a mob attack in Haiti, being robbed in Ethiopia and being chased by armed rebels in Liberia.
Paul Bierhaus, a former board member of Feed My Starving Children who has known Proudfit for years, described him as fearless, an eternal optimist, and a man driven by his faith in God.
"Dick is as comfortable sitting in a village in the jungle as he is in the White House," Bierhaus said. "Every fiber of his body is about feeding children. It is not about status."
Worldwide effort comes home
But it's no longer just starving people in developing countries using the packaged food. In a sign of the times, Proudfit now sends his meals to U.S. food shelves, natural disaster areas and some Indian reservations.
Kids Against Hunger, for example, sent meals for families left homeless after the Joplin, Mo., tornado and following Hurricane Katrina.
As he looks to the future, Proudfit wants to build another 400 satellite programs. In the weeks ahead, he'll visit several sites in Minnesota, California, Florida, Texas and the East Coast to build and support organizations.
Kids Against Hunger even has added its own packing center to introduce more Minnesotans to its work. The meals packed at the headquarters are quickly moved to the attached warehouse, and eventually shipped.
Next week, University of Minnesota athletes will be pouring the rice-and-veggie mix. The doors are open for more volunteer groups, he stressed.
Proudfit is thrilled to see his vision becoming reality. He's worked without wages all these years, and even underwrote nearly the entire budgets for Feed My Starving Children and Kids Against Hunger during their early years. He estimates he spent nearly $5 million of his own money, "but I really don't care how much."
What Proudfit cares about is getting more food into the mouths of malnourished children. He wants more volunteers and more satellite programs, and is positively thrilled with each new addition.
He admits many Minnesotans aren't familiar with him or Kids Against Hunger. "We've been kind of quiet," he said. "Now you can tell people about us."
Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511
KIDS AGAINST HUNGER MEALS
About 924,000 volunteers packed 40 million meals for Kids Against Hunger last year (in millions of meals)Source: Kids Against Hunger Star Tribune