February 7, 2013 | 1:29pm
More than 30 years ago, Ben Cohen
enriched the palate of folks everywhere when he and long-time friend and partner, Jerry Greenfield, opened an ice cream parlor in Vermont. Ben & Jerry's frosty desserts have melted in mouths across the world, and the company is arguably the best loved ice cream maker on the planet.
Last night, the man responsible for so many eaten feelings joined viewers at Miami Beach Cinematheque
for a screening of Ingredients
and Q&A session with audience members in hopes of continuing to enrich lives, this time not with ice cream, but stamps and awareness.
The screening of the award-winning documentary, directed by Robert Bates, was part of the Cinematheque's Cinema Green Series
in collaboration with Environmental Coalition of Miami and the Beaches
. It was the first time Cohen would see the film, but definitely not the first time he'd heard of its subject matter. Since selling his company to Unilever in 2000, he's made the jump from ice cream CEO to activist/philanthropist/one super-pissed-off-at-the-government dude.
Cohen and ECOMB committee
"I was working on a campaign to shift national budget priorities out of the Pentagon and into education and healthcare and housing and poverty programs, and that was really hard. A lot harder than selling ice cream. It doesn't taste as good as ice cream; it's not as fun as ice cream; and going up against the Pentagon is tough. They're really big and they have a lot of heavy duty weapons and they have a lot of money, so compared to that, this campaign about getting money out of politics is incredibly popular. It's just about as popular as ice cream, really," Cohen told New Times about his major life-change.
The campaign he is specifically referring to is his latest project, Stamp Stampede
, which kicked off its national tour right here in Miami. The initiative's mission is to pass a constitutional amendment to "get money out of politics" and Cohen is doing it one dollar bill at a time.
With a mode of transport too whimsical to ignore and the assistance of Aaron Rubin, who will be driving the Stamp-O-Matic Stamp Mobile across the country, Cohen is leaving a trail of ink on every willing dollar.
"The system is referred to by a lot of people as legalized bribery, and it is...The amendment we're supporting says corporations are not people and money is not speech...So many environmental organizations and organizations interested in other issues as well, like the NAACP and the Sierra Club, are all starting to realize they're never going to really make any headway on the issues they're concerned about until we get money out of politics," Cohen said.
The Stamp Mobile is a 12-foot-high, 14-foot-long, 6-foot-wide, carnival spectacle where anyone can stick a buck in the slot and watch it go through the conveyor 'til it comes out the other side freshly stamped. Cohen's machine makes Willy Wonka look like a bitch.
Cohen explained that each dollar bill lasts about five years, and if you get it in the middle of that life span and it gets passed around at least once a day, it gets seen about 800 times before it's retired. "If you stamp 10 bills, that's 8,000 people; if you do that for 10 days, that must be 80,000 people; if you do it for 100 days, that's 800,000 people and it really makes your voice powerful. And I like the idea of it being economic Jiu Jitsu--it's using money to get money out of politics," Cohen said.
In his home town of Bulington, Vermont, people are supporting the cause with coffee shops and bars setting up stamping stations. Returning to the idea of locally grown and produced goods is a huge part of the rising trend in sustainability and environmental awareness, something Cohen has supported since Ben & Jerry's inception. "When I was there, one of the founding principles of the company was to provide a market for Vermont dairy farmers, to help keep [them] in business. That's really in terms what this film is about tonight; a lot of it is about local sourcing," he said.
Ben & Jerry's was one of the first companies to actively take a stance against genetically modified foods and bovine growth hormones when they first came out. "We ended up having to sue the federal government for the right to tell people what was not in our ice cream, essentially because Monsanto, the corporation that was producing bovine growth hormone, used its money and political muscle...We were successful in suing," Cohen said.
Cohen's chat with New Times became more of a public forum as the discussion among ECOMB members and attendees opened up at the table before everyone was called inside for the screening. "Cinema Green, this is a great opportunity to provide an A-ha! moment to the community...Entertainment, edutainment, is really a great way to get people to connect with the truth," said Gabriole Van Bryce, ECOMB board member.
Viewers took their seats as ECOMB's executive director, Luiz Rodriguez, and program manager, Miguel Pena, took the floor to discuss the non-profit's latest initiatives on recycling, sustainability, and Community Supported Agriculture programs; they also introduced Cohen before the lights went off and viewing began. The film took a personal look at what's going on and what must be addressed in a world in need of balance, health, and a more sustainable model for living and eating well. After the viewing, ECOMB and Cohen engaged in an open discussion with the audience on topics such as food contamination, livestock, raising awareness, passing on social responsibility, and getting to know the farmers behind the product.
Afterward, Cohen led guests outside to the Stamp Mobile where a frenzied crowd gathered for the spectacle and passed up dollar bills to Cohen for inking and redistribution. A limited amount of stamps were also on sale for the evening; they can also be purchased on the Stamp Stampede website.
"It's been an interesting evolution for me from ice cream, to political activism, to getting money out of politics and the issue of our food supply and local food," Cohen said.
The care and energy that went into making Ben & Jerry's the empire that it is today, is now completely redirected in Cohen's activism. He is driven, positive, and more approachable than most would believe for being a multi-millionaire. A simple man with a complex mission, he is taking his cause around the country. Cohen will also join Crosby, Stills and Nash
for their tour in May to get the word out, but Miami got to see it first.