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.

“It’s so simple and so beautiful,” says Devorah Yahn, the potter responsible for bringing the concept of Empty Bowls to Viroqua.

Yahn was inspired to take action in her community after reading Hunger: An Unnatural History, by Sharman Apt Russell. The book explores the physiological and psychological effects of hunger on the body, and highlights strategies for social change. For Yahn, the Empty Bowls movement was a way that she could take action against hunger while using her skills as a potter. She now organizes the annual event along with food coordinator Jane Siemon, volunteer coordinator Ruth Kittleson, and treasurer Susan Anderson. After the first Empty Bowls event in Viroqua, Yahn came home and wrote on her studio wall in black marker, “It is an honor to make dishes for others to eat off of, but it is a greater honor to make dishes so others may eat.” Since then, this phrase has become a personal motto for her.

Every year, Yahn and other potters from the area make and donate dozens of bowls to the event. She says that the weeks before the event are like a “bowl-throwing marathon,” with one bowl after another coming off her potter’s wheel. Along with Yahn, local potters Greg Cheesebro, Darrel Bowman, Kay Campbell, and Maureen Karlstad have contributed pieces every year to Viroqua Empty Bowls, along with other potters from Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa. In addition to the small bowls used for soup, Yahn also coordinates donations of larger serving pieces for a Pottery Lottery. Tickets for the lottery are sold for $100 each and ticketholders can choose their pottery pieces in an order determined by drawing. Proceeds from the Pottery Lottery, as well from Empty Bowls, go to local food pantries, Oxfam International, Lutheran World Relief, and to Potters for Peace, an organization that teaches techniques for securing clean water in impoverished areas. Although Viroqua has a population of only about 5,000, Empty Bowls has raised between $7,000 and $8,000 each year. “Artists are giving people,” says Jody Harrell, an organizer of the Oshkosh Empty Bowls event. One need not be a professional artist, however, to make pottery pieces for Empty Bowls. In preparation for the event, Harrell, an art teacher, opened her classroom at Neenah High School to students and community residents to make bowls from donated supplies.

In Milwaukee, many elementary and high schools have contributed their pottery to Empty Bowls, as have Girl Scout troops, churches, and even the UW-Milwaukee women’s volleyball team. Milwaukee Empty Bowls 2011, held on October 8 at the Milwaukee Area Technical College Oak Creek campus, featured more than 50 varieties of soup donated by local restaurants, including cheddar and bratwurst soup from Balzac, corn and poblano pepper chowder from Le Reve Patisserie & Café, and fried turkey and andouille sausage gumbo from Crawdaddy’s. The Milwaukee event raised over $40,000 for hunger-fighting charities in the area.

“It can be done on any scale, in any town, village, city, school, church, temple, synagogue,” says Jean Wells, who founded Milwaukee Empty Bowls along with Amy Dodge. Wells and Dodge cooked up the idea in 1999 when they were both working for Chef Scott Shully of Shully’s Catering and Café in Thiensville. Shully helped get the word out to local chefs about the event. “All it takes is a few handmade bowls and a pot of soup and you have an instant fundraiser,” says Wells. “We collect 300 gallons of soup and approximately 2,400 bowls for ours.”

Although each Empty Bowls event is unique to the community that organizes it, each event shares a sense of community felt by volunteers, donors, and attendees. “There is a special spirit which comes alive as artists prepare bowls, churches and community organizations bake bread, churn butter, and come together to volunteer,” says Harrell of the Oshkosh event. “There is a warm feeling of giving.

In Viroqua, Milwaukee, Oshkosh and elsewhere around the state, those who attend an Empty Bowls fundraiser pick up on that warm feeling. Although guests’ bowls are empty when they leave the events, their bellies and hearts are full.

You can learn more about Empty Bowls and their upcoming events at www.emptybowls.net.

Try out Dani Lind’s Sweet Potato & Black Bean Chili recipe, which was served at the 2011 Viroqua Empty Bowls Fundraiser.

Susan Gloss is the author of the novel Vintage (HarperCollins, March 2014). She lives, writes, cooks, eats, mothers, and works as an attorney in Madison. She blogs about fiction, fashion, food and wine at GlossingOverIt.com. Photo by Nick Wilkes.

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