FULTON, MO. — One group started walking on Oct. 18 from Cal State Long Beach. The other set out a week earlier from Westminster College in Fulton, Mo.
Although the Southern Californians were 1,700 miles from this small Missouri town made famous as the site of Sir Winston Churchill's "Iron Curtain" speech in 1946, the two groups had the same goal: to fight hunger in the U.S. and around the world.
This is the 40th anniversary of Crop Hunger Walk, a national interfaith program sponsored by Church World Service and viewed by many as the granddaddy of charity walks. Its feet-on-the-ground method has since been emulated for other causes, from fighting breast cancer and HIV-AIDS to raising funds for animal shelters.
Nationwide, this year's Crop Hunger Walks are expected to draw an estimated 200,000 participants sponsored by 2 million people. In years past, sponsors would pledge a specific amount of money for every mile walked by the volunteer. These days, most sponsors simply contribute a lump sum, no matter how far the volunteer walks.
About $15 million is expected to be raised this year from hunger walks in communities across the country, according to Terry Allen, national director of community fundraising for Church World Service, a cooperative ministry of Protestant, Orthodox and Anglican denominations.
One out of every four dollars raised will stay in the local community to assist food and other programs. The rest will be sent overseas to partner agencies that will deliver much-needed food and water to developing countries struggling with poverty, famine and natural disasters.
"The need is dire, and more so than ever," Allen said.
For example, he said, Kenya's devastating three-year drought has led to crop failures and loss of livestock. There were emergency responses to storms and floods in Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia and the Philippines. In Pakistan, a third of the 2 million refugees who in the spring were forced from their homes in the war-torn Swat Valley remain in camps. "They are still there and it's winter in the mountains," Allen said.
From modest beginnings in Bismarck, N.D., in 1969, the anti-hunger campaign has spread from America's breadbasket areas to 2,000 cities and towns across the country, including 30 in Southern California. The last Los Angeles-area walk for this year is scheduled for Nov. 8 in the San Fernando Valley.
Southern Californians may have to watch for traffic, but at least they're not disturbing livestock. In rural Callaway County, Mo., a story is told about how large groups of crop walkers in the 1970s inadvertently stirred up the animals at Charlie and Sharon Pierson's ranch as they made their way to the finish line at nearby Old Auxvasse Church.
"We had six horses, and they would tear up and down the road past each walker and scream and buck and kick," Sharon Pierson, a crop walker herself, said with a laugh. "The mules would bray and the donkeys would run one way. It was just a day of chaos, and it went on for quite a while until everyone was back at church."
These days, walkers don't pass by the Pierson ranch. Over the years, the length of the typical crop walk has decreased from 10 miles to between three and five miles -- and so has the number of participants in some areas.
As the venerable program marks its 40th anniversary, enthusiasm for the annual walks may have leveled off. The number of people involved and the amount of money raised has remained virtually flat in recent years.
"I guess 'plateau' is not an unreasonable word to use," said Julie Brumana, regional director of the effort for California, Arizona, Nevada and Hawaii.
"Personally, I don't think it's a cause for concern."
But Brumana said more outreach and strategic planning was needed. "Hopefully, making some adjustments in how we market and approach groups with Crop Hunger Walks will bump it up again."
The declines can be partly attributed to the U.S. economic downturn, which has affected a broad range of charities, denominations and congregations along with businesses and families. Still, overall growth for the walks has been in a holding pattern for the last 15 years. Total contributions nationally have fluctuated between $15 million and $17 million.
Things are better in California. Although statewide receipts were down 17.6% for the 2009 fiscal year compared with 2008, there was 12% growth from 2005 to 2008, Brumana said. Wherever the walks are held, the needs of the poor continue to nag at the consciences of crop walkers.
Lin Diekamp, a member of Old Auxvasse Church, said she has been walking for the cause for 30 years in Callaway County. "It still moves me when I think about it that there are people on this Earth who do not know what it is like at the end of a hot day to just have water running over their body," she said.
Betty Cole, a teacher at Pasadena's Westridge School for girls, said Crop Hunger Walks are unique. "There are plenty of other walks I participate in. But when you think about it, almost all the other walks have built-in constituencies. We all know people who have had cancer, so we will walk for an organization raising money for cancer. We have dogs, so we have walks to provide shelters for dogs."
But, she added, people who are hungry have no constituency and are unlikely to announce their impoverishment by walking for themselves.
"There's so much shame attached to being poor and hungry," Cole said. "If other people don't walk on behalf of people who are going hungry, who is going to do that?"