Empty Bowls and Full Hearts

Feature Stories Winter 2011 Issue

Empty Bowls and Full Hearts

By Susan Gloss | Photos By Jim Klousia 0

There’s something about a handmade bowl that makes the food inside of it taste better. Perhaps it’s about aesthetics. Unlike a bowl produced on a factory line, a handmade piece of pottery has varied textures and colors. It has a weight and warmth when cradled between two palms. A handmade bowl is also a link between human beings. One person shaped, fired, and glazed the bowl, and another eats from it. And thanks to a charitable movement called Empty Bowls, yet another person benefits from the funds used to purchase it.

In 1991, Michigan art teacher John Hartom dreamed up a very simple way to combine his love of pottery with his concern for world hunger. Hartom had his students craft bowls in class, which they then sold at a fundraising event. For a small donation, members of the community enjoyed a meal of soup and bread in the handmade bowls. Money raised was given to a local food bank. Each guest took home a bowl as a reminder that there are always people in the world whose bowls are empty.

Since that first event in Michigan, Empty Bowls has grown into a grassroots movement with hundreds of events occurring across the globe each year. The Imagine/RENDER group, a nonprofit organization based in North Carolina, promotes the overall concept of Empty Bowls, but each fundraiser across the country is independently organized, resulting in a different flavor and feel from one event to the next.

In Wisconsin, Empty Bowls fundraisers are held in several locations around the state, from Hudson in the northwest to Racine in the southeast. The Empty Bowls movement takes on special meaning in Wisconsin because our state so often feels like a place of food abundance. Our farmers market stalls are stacked high with a wide variety of vegetables, meats and dairy. Our county highways are lined with sturdy rows of corn and soybeans. Such scenes make it easy to forget that hunger is a real and growing problem in our state. According to Feeding America’s “Hunger in Wisconsin 2010” report, nearly 575,000 Wisconsin residents rely on food banks for food each year, and the demand has increased as the economy has worsened. The report notes that 72 percent of pantries, 60 percent of soup kitchens and 64% of shelters served more people in 2010 than they did in 2006.

In Viroqua, which is home to many artists, Empty Bowls is a natural marriage of creativity and charitable work. The Viroqua Empty Bowls fundraiser held on October 15, 2011, at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church marked the event’s fifth anniversary in Viroqua. Guests listened to Irish folk tunes played by volunteer musicians and enjoyed clam chowder from Borgens Café in Westby, hearty pasta e fagioli from DiSciascio’s Italian Restaurant in Coon Valley, chorizo potato stew from Chilito Lindo in Viroqua, and many other varieties of soup and bread donated by local restaurants and individuals. Many of the selections highlighted seasonal or local foods, like Luke Zahm’s roasted parsnip celeriac soup, Turkey Ridge Farm’s apple cider, and Kickapoo Coffee.

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