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Sisters give 3 years to map hunger solutions

By Linda Bloom
7:00 A.M. July 1, 2013 | NEW YORK (UMNS)

Editor's note: Read the results of the sisters' research in the "Facing Hunger in America" report. For a comprehensive look at how United Methodists are addressing the issues of hunger and social justice, go to www.umc.org/hunger.

Betsy Comstock and Carolyn Pesheck wanted to see for themselves how people are responding to the issue of hunger in America.

The two sisters, both active United Methodists, bought a used minivan and embarked on a series of road trips between 2009 and 2012 that took them to hunger-related programs in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

They drove 38,893 miles and spent 254 nights in campgrounds, motels or the homes of family and friends. Comstock covered the gas, Pesheck paid for lodging and they took turns buying groceries. "It just became our way of life for a few years," Comstock explained.

The result is "Facing Hunger in America" a report that summarizes the issues and best practices of the 93 programs visited. They also kept an online diary of their travels in a Facing Hunger in America blog.

A range of actions are needed to reduce U.S. poverty, the sisters point out in their report. Charitable or federal safety nets will not disappear, but will shrink "as the need shrinks, so that they focus on those who, because of mental, physical, or emergency constraints, cannot adequately provide for themselves and their families.

"We envision an expansion of the healthy food movement in a way that inclusively makes local healthy food available to all by deliberately building healthy communities," they write. "We are strong proponents of local farms, improving access to fresh produce, regional policies to promote access to healthy food, and improving knowledge about cooking and nutrition."

In their travels, the sisters found plenty of examples of how the emphasis on healthy can mean less hunger.

"Called to look at this"

Betsy Comstock and Carolyn Pesheck prepare salad for a Manna Meal in Charleston, W. Va., on Oct. 11, 2010. Manna Meals serves breakfast and lunch 365 days of the year.
Betsy Comstock and Carolyn Pesheck prepare salad for a Manna Meal in Charleston, W. Va., on Oct. 11, 2010. Manna Meals serves breakfast and lunch 365 days of the year.

Born only a year apart - Comstock is 65 and Pesheck is 64 - the middle two of the four Comstock daughters from Duluth, Minn., have remained good friends through adulthood.

"The idea of doing some travel together" was always part of their retirement plan, said Pesheck, who worked for Pfizer as a research scientist for 20 years and is a member of Chapel Hill United Methodist Church in Portage, Mich.

When the sisters pondered the idea of pursuing a project together, "we kept being brought back to hunger as a topic we should study, like we were being called to look at this," she said.

"We kept being mystified by the problem of hunger in this country," added Comstock, who had a 30-year career as a psychologist and usability researcher and is a member of St. Matthew's United Methodist Church in Acton, Mass.

"We didn't either of us know anything about it when we started. Somehow the statistics we were reading didn't put enough of a face on it for us."

For this project, they focused less on statistics and more on experience and information gathered from interviews.

"Every site was our favorite site while we were there," Comstock said. "Every site we went to, we met people who were compassionate, dedicated, and working their tails off on behalf of hungry people in this country."

Big not always better

The sisters learned that small organizations, or even individuals, can be just as effective as larger ones when it comes to feeding the hungry. On Bainbridge Island near Seattle, for example, a former commercial fisherman has found a way to secure donations from the seafood industry to the food banks network through his "SeaShare" program.

"It's an incredible example of leverage," Comstock explained. "It's one and a half people who manage this whole thing."

Some projects went beyond the traditional soup kitchen or food pantry. Pesheck enjoyed attending a "Canstruction" contest where middle and high school students learned facts about hunger while building sculptures out of canned food and competing for awards.

Many ways to end hunger

Here are some examples, identified by purpose, of the 93 programs that Comstock and Pesheck visited:

"People vote by bringing in (additional) cans and putting them in barrels at the various constructions," she explained. "All of the food is then donated to a local food pantry or food bank."

Mobile programs in Chicago and Washington take food to those reluctant to go to homeless shelters, then look for other opportunities to help. "In both of those examples, they send social workers along with the soup truck." Comstock noted. "It's never just about food, in any of these places."

Even a "Meals on Wheels" program, such as the one they visited in South Carolina, provides more than just nutrition. The driver making the delivery provides "a check" on the person receiving the meal, Pesheck noted, and reports back if there seems to be a problem, highlighting the importance of human contact for these programs.

In Hawaii, the one destination they could not reach by van, the sisters were impressed by the evolving hunger ministry of Uti Langi, a member of First United Methodist Church in Honolulu. "He's our example of somebody who moves fluidly up and down the continuum of mercy work to advocacy work," Comstock explained.

Langi, executive director of H-5 ministry, adapts to changing needs. He started by giving out blankets and then sandwiches before convincing the State of Hawaii to build a homeless shelter. Then he adapted old tour buses into temporary shelters and has built a small community around the buses. "Now, he's organizing these folks to do jobs for the city," she said.

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York. Follow her at http://twitter.com/umcscribe.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.