How the Creator of Pop-Tarts Gave the US a Delicious Treat and a Sweet Foreign Policy Tool

William "Bill" Post, Pop-Tarts inventor, seen here visiting a Kellanova plant in Michigan. (Kellanova)

William "Bill" Post, erstwhile bakery manager turned creator of the Pop-Tart, died of heart failure at age 96 on Feb. 10, 2024. Post, who never worked for the Post cereal company but certainly stole its thunder, was also an Army Air Forces veteran who served in occupied Japan after World War II. And although his postwar service is commendable, his breakfast-table creation is probably the most everlasting contribution Post gave the United States.

Kellogg's Pop-Tarts hit grocery store shelves in 1964, four months after rival Post announced the creation of "Country Squares," a fruit-filled breakfast pastry that didn't require refrigeration. But Post didn't send Country Squares to stores right away, giving Kellogg's time to create its own version, its name a twist on the "pop art" movement that famed artist Andy Warhol pioneered that decade. Pop-Tarts were an instant hit. More than 60 years later, the product is owned by Kellogg's spinoff Kellanova, which churns out more than 3 billion of them every year.

'Unfrosted: The Pop-Tart Story,' about the creation and rise of the Pop-Tart, will debut on Netflix in May 2024. (Netflix)

But not all Pop-Tarts ended up in the toasters of American families. Many of them are used by the United States military often in strategically important ways. In 2009, for example, the U.S. Navy plied Somali pirates holding Capt. Richard Phillips with chocolate Pop-Tarts in order to convince one of them to board the USS Bainbridge and begin negotiating for the release of their hostage.

Before that, however, the shelf-stable toaster pastry was used for a bigger purpose: food aid for the people of Afghanistan.

On Oct. 7, 2001, the United States began launching airstrikes on Afghanistan. The bombing campaign was the prelude to a ground invasion of the country in response to the Sept. 11 attacks and the ruling Taliban's failure to give up Osama bin Laden, who was using the country as a refuge. When the U.S. began its aerial campaign, Afghans were already in a dire humanitarian crisis. Decades of war and internal conflict saw food stores running critically low, massive displaced and undernourished populations and a lack of aid workers to address the problems.

For months following the initial bombing campaign, American aircraft also dropped millions of packets of food, usually in the form of brightly colored humanitarian daily rations. Each one, packed with 2,200 calories of America's finest, could be dropped in even the most remote locations in Afghanistan and required minimal preparation. They included high-calorie, MRE-like staples, including stews, beans, rice and peanut butter. The Pop-Tarts were meant to be an "icebreaker," introducing the Afghan people to American foods.

"I wouldn't be surprised if it was the first time in military history that an attacker delivered humanitarian relief on the very first day of going to war," Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told The Baltimore Sun.

Despite the six million Afghans facing hunger at the time, not everyone lauded the U.S. Air Force's efforts to airdrop Pop-Tart-laden food relief. Some said the yellow-colored packets resembled anti-personnel cluster bomblets the United States was dropping on Taliban targets. Others believed the air drops weren't getting to the people who actually needed it, and would never be able to feed everyone. Relief agencies refer to these kinds of donations as "SWEDOW" -- or "stuff we don't want."

"It's quite true that 37,000 rations in a day do not feed millions of human beings," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told reporters in 2001. "On the other hand, if you were one of the starving people who got one of the rations, you'd be appreciative."

For U.S. military members deployed overseas, there is no shortage of Pop-Tarts. Even troops who spend long periods in the field will either find "toaster pastry" or branded Pop-Tarts in their MREs, in one of two flavors: frosted brown sugar cinnamon and chocolate chip. Many service members have long believed that MRE Pop-Tarts tasted superior to the store-bought ones, without a clear explanation for why.

As for the history of the Pop-Tart itself, comedian Jerry Seinfeld wrote, produced and starred in an upcoming origin story. "Unfrosted: The Pop-Tart Story" depicts what Netflix calls the "race to create a pastry that will change the face of breakfast forever. A tale of ambition, betrayal, sugar, and menacing milkmen." It will debut on Netflix on May 3, 2024.

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