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From Ice Cream to Nuclear Freeze

When the e-mail came around that Ben Cohen, co-founder of Ben&Jerry's Homemade, would be stopping by the office to discuss his latest crusade, everyone asked the same question: Is he going to bring ice cream? Cohen didn't disappoint.

The cherubic entrepreneur, his face sunburned from a day of bike riding in Northern California, plopped a big bag of Chunky Monkey, Chubby Hubby, and Cherry Garcia on the conference table. It got whisked to the office freezer. Then we discussed national defense.

Cohen was making the rounds to promote Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities, a nonprofit of which he's president. The group's mission is to persuade the government to allocate more of the federal budget from what the organization terms "obsolete Cold War weapons" to social needs such as education and health care for children. Its targets include the $3.2 billion a year Joint Strike Fighter program, the $2.3 billion Virginia-class submarine, and the $7.5 billion spent on missile defense.

COMMON SENSE. Cohen says he'd like to see some of what the U.S. spends on its nuclear arsenal directed toward rebuilding schools. "The weapons we have now are 150,000 times more powerful than what we dropped on Hiroshima," he says. "With $10 billion a year you could rebuild every school in the country that needs fixing over the next 12 years."

His group boasts some 650 business execs as members, including some familiar names: Intel (INTC) founder Max Palevsky, actor and salad dressing salesman Paul Newman, and Tim Zagat of the famous restaurant guides. The goal is to get passed a bill they call the Common Sense Budget Act of 2006, which would divert $60 billion a year from the Pentagon's budget to social spending and deficit reduction.

Cohen is spending $2 million a year on the project, all raised from private donations. The money is going toward grassroots efforts to win support for the proposal as well as lobbying on Capitol Hill. Cohen admits he doesn't think the group will actually get any legislation enacted this year, but he's hoping to gain some traction for it as candidates jockey for the Presidency over the next two years. "When they say they care about kids," Cohen says about politicians, "I say: ‘Show me the money.'"

THE OREOMOBILE. Schools mean a lot to Cohen. He met his former business partner Jerry Greenfield in seventh-grade gym class in Merrick, N.Y., on Long Island, in 1963. The pair opened their first ice cream store in a converted gas station in Burlington, Vt., in 1978. Starting small, they soon became masters at what's now called guerrilla marketing.

Cohen and Greenfield showed movies on the wall of the shop on summer nights. They gave away free ice cream cones on the company's anniversary, a tradition that continues to this day. And they built the world's largest sundae, 27,000 pounds of it. "We were big fish in a little pond," Cohen says.

Cohen is taking a similar approach with his social activism. To get the word out, his foot soldiers are tooling around the country in an OreoMobile, a truck pulling a large stack of Oreos—each one representing $10 billion of the national budget. They've also got an Apple Pie van with the slogan "Our Kids Deserve a Bigger Piece of the Pie" written across the side

Cohen had been estranged from the company he co-founded after losing the business to European packaged goods giant Unilever in a $326 million hostile takeover in 2000. He's since made amends with the new management, however. Cohen maintains an office at the headquarters in Vermont and receives a salary. Unilever is even supporting his politicking, introducing an Apple Pie-flavored ice cream with information about the budget initiative on the carton.

Isn't it a little risky for an international company to take a political stance? "The polling for this is so strong," Cohen says. "Everybody's against nuclear weapons."

Palmeri is a senior correspondent in BusinessWeek's Los Angeles bureau.

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