It was a devastating hurricane in Honduras that first sparked Richard Proudfit’s war on hunger.

The engineer-turned-entrepreneur traveled to Central America as part of Hurricane Fifi’s medical relief team in 1974 to help repair the country’s infrastructure. Witnessing the survivors’ misery altered his life’s mission.

“I saw thousands of children dying all around me,” Proudfit later recalled. “I couldn’t handle it. I had to do something when I got back to Minnesota.”

Thirteen years later, he founded Feed My Starving Children, a Christian-based nonprofit that packages nutritious meals for millions of malnourished children around the world. That operation — and eventually his second nonprofit, Kids Against Hunger — delivered a combined 1 billion meals a year.

The Twin Cities philanthropist whose battle against hunger took him to war zones across the globe where he risked his life to bring food to the starving, died Tuesday at age 88.

“He planted the seeds for thousands upon thousands of children to be fed when he answered God’s call to ‘Feed my starving children,’ ” said current CEO Mark Crea. “We are honored to continue following this call 31 years later.”

Proudfit’s mission first launched in 1987, when he assembled scientists from General Mills, Cargill and other companies to create a food product that provided all the nutritional requirements to sustain the famished. The group settled on a winning formula: a mix of rice, soy, dehydrated vegetables and chicken flavoring — plus vitamins and minerals — that is still used today.

And so the Coon Rapids-based Feed My Starving Children was born. 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 organization to create Kids Against Hunger.

During that time, Proudfit didn’t simply package the food and ship it off with hopes that it would reach the needy. He traveled to dozens of countries in Africa, Asia and South America to track down missionaries and relief groups that had the means to get those foodstuffs “out of the port, across near impassable roads, past corrupt government officials, and into the mouths of those who are most often overlooked and ignored in their societies,” according to his Kids Against Hunger online biography.

“His tireless relationship building resulted in a worldwide network of organizations that can successfully distribute the food under the worst of conditions.”

Back in the United States, he oversaw development of 100 satellite programs that package meals for distribution by the U.S. Navy, global relief groups and more.

But it’s no longer just starving people in developing countries using the packaged food. In recent years, Proudfit sent his meals to U.S. food shelves, natural disaster areas and some Indian reservations.

In 2012, Proudfit joined the ranks of Microsoft founder Bill Gates, actor Paul Newman and former First Lady Rosalynn Carter in receiving the Jefferson Award for public service. Then 82, the St. Paul native received a gold medallion at the White House before returning to his modest office in New Hope, where a poster of a young Honduran boy with sad brown eyes served as a constant reminder about his mission.

Whenever he was asked about retirement, those who knew him best say his response was always the same: “I can’t. My children are dying.”

 

Staff writer Jean Hopfensperger contributed to this report.