A Special Thanksgiving Shout Out to My Two New Friends

See the photo, above? That’s me in the middle grinning and blushing like a 12-year-old girl going backstage to meet the Jonas Brothers.

But, needless to say, those guys aren’t the Jonases. And though you may not immediately recognize their faces, I’m guessing you’ll need only their first names to know immediately who they are.

The one on the left is Ben. The other is Jerry.

See? Like Madonna and Elvis and Prince, you don’t need last names. Ben and Jerry are synonymous with the premium brand of ice cream they’ve created, with such iconic flavors as Cherry Garcia, Chunky Monkey, Phish Food and Chubby Hubby. But what has launched them into the realm of superstardom is the way they do business: they take their social responsibilities – like reducing their carbon footprint, supporting sustainable dairy farming, and sourcing Fair Trade ingredients – very seriously, whille promoting their causes with a unique combination of whimsy, humor and play. As Jerry first asked more than 20 years ago, “If it’s not fun, why do it?”

I got an inside look at Ben and Jerry’s almost mythical company last month, when I was one of 12 food bloggers who got to spend a couple of days at its headquarters in Burlington, Vermont. We were invited to learn about the ice cream maker’s recently announced commitment to go 100 percent Fair Trade by 2013.

(Full disclosure: Ben and Jerry’s picked up the tab for our airfare, hotel, meals and more ice cream than any of us could possibly have eaten over a 36-hour period. There was also a very nice bottle of wine and a bag full of Ben and Jerry’s merchandise – including coupons for yet more free ice cream! – in each of our hotel rooms. Did this influence me to write a couple of favorable blog posts about them? Most definitely.)

The company’s founders surprised us by showing up for breakfast the second morning we were there. They spent about 90 minutes answering our questions, posing for photos, and, no doubt, finding all of our gawking and fawning amusing. But, hey, anyone who writes about food would be hard pressed not to be at least a little starstruck in their presence. As one of my fellow bloggers admitted, it was more of a thrill for him to meet Ben and Jerry than Lady Gaga.

I have to admit, I can be pretty blase about encounters with celebrities. But these two had me at "good morning." They were very approachable, thoughtful, funny, and completely open and honest with us. For example, it was very obvious that they're still grumpy, even 10 years later, about the Unilever acquisition (“It was something we had to do to be responsive to our shareholders…”) But since then, they seem to have doubled down on their determination to hold fast to their three-part mission statement, which makes a top-quality product, economic viability, and social responsibility equal goals.

Are they perfect? Of course not. For example, this year they conceded, under pressure from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, to stop labeling their ice cream as "All Natural,” because some of its inclusions (Ben and Jerry's terminology for the things they add to the smooth base to give each flavor its distinctive personality like caramel swirls, bits of candy, or baked goods with their own lists of ingredients) may contain high-fructose corn syrup or partially hydrogenated oils. But according to a Ben and Jerry's spokeperson, the ice cream itself is 100 percent natural.

Overall, though, I’m really grateful that these two guys, who became friends while commiserating about how much they hated high-school gym class, have set a standard for how capitalism should work. So in the spirit of Thanksgiving, I've come up with a Top 10 list of reasons why I'm glad that the names Ben and Jerry are an integral component of American culture:

1. I’m thankful for any company that has this as its mission statement: “Our product mission drives us to make fantastic ice cream – for its own sake. Our Economic Mission asks us to manage our Company for sustainable financial growth. And our Social Mission calls us to use our Company in innovative ways to serve the common good.” 

2.  I’m thankful that Ben and Jerry, way back in 1989, came out strongly against artificial growth hormones in milk. In 1996, they were one of the first plaintiffs in a case arguing for their First Amendment right to label milk products as rGBH-free, and since then have helped others argue similar cases.

3.  I’m thankful that the ice cream maker is pushing for more humanely sourced eggs. In 2008, Ben and Jerry's got 30 percent of its U.S. eggs from cage-free farms. In 2009, that number rose to 83 percent. And by the end of this year, they will exclusively use only certified humane cage-free eggs.

4.  I’m thankful that Ben and Jerry’s shares its spotlight with hard-working advocacy organizations such as Greenpeace, Farm Aid, Children’s Defense Fund, Rock the Vote,, and many, many others.

5.  I’m thankful that they so generously fund their foundation – last year, to the tune of $2 million (that's 7.5 percent of pre-tax profit) – to provide grants to small non-profits and grassroots organizations working on progressive social change. Some of their recent recipients include farm workers trying to eliminate the use of pesticides; concerned Ohio-Valley citizens fighting against mountain-top removal mining; and families of Louisiana oil refinery workers working to reduce the rate of accidents at oil refineries.

6.  I’m thankful that I can take my kids to a Ben and Jerry’s Scoop Shop for a treat that they consider very special – a treat they hold in such high regard that, in years past, they have traded a grocery bag full of Halloween candy for a large cone with their favorite flavor piled on top. (This year, however, now that they’re a bit older, they didn't fall for this. Bummer. Now they’ll only settle for cash; we’re still negotiating the exact amount for last month's bounty of insulin-spiking handouts.)

And to round out my top 10 list for why I'm grateful for Ben and Jerry...

7.     Triple Caramel Chunk (my daughter Sophie’s favorite)

8.     Phish Food (my daughter Stella’s favorite)

9.     Coconut Seven-Layer Bar (my husband’s favorite)

10.   Coffee Heathbar Crunch (my latest favorite – and it's one of the first flavors to be 100-percent Fair Trade)

So, thanks again, guys. And remember: the Jonas Brothers can't hold a candle to you.

Heck, we don’t even know their first names.

You rock.

Shari Danielson
is a frequent contributor fo Simple, Good and Tasty. Her last post was "Can a Locavore Eat Chocolate, Coffee and Bananas with a Clear Conscience?"