Thursday, September 19, 2013

Fighting Hunger One Bowl at a Time

Note:  A version of this article was published in the September 12th Punta Gorda/Port Charlotte edition of Florida Weekly.  I participated in the first leg of the event -- the bowl making.  Suffice it to say that my bowl will not be the first one chosen at the dinner!  

Fighting Hunger One Bowl at a Time by Nanette Crist

To most of us, an empty bowl is a sign that it’s time to push back from the table after a satisfying meal.    Getting three square meals a day is just one of those things you take for granted.  For many people in Charlotte County, however, an empty bowl represents hunger rather than a full stomach.  The purpose of the Empty Bowls Dinner, now in its 14th year, is to remind people that there are many children and adults in our community who do not know where they will get their next meal.

In the Beginning…

The Empty Bowls Dinner has humble origins.  In the spring of 2000, Joann Winkler, a fifth grade teacher at Liberty Elementary, was teaching a class of children who had been identified as being at risk of dropping out.    Winkler was always on the hunt for projects that would both engage her students and sow the seeds of community service.  Winkler heard about Empty Bowls, a national grassroots effort to raise awareness about hunger, from one of her colleagues.   The concept was simple.  Groups of people get together to make bowls and then serve a meal at which the bowls are sold.  Proceeds from the event are donated to organizations that feed the hungry in the local community.   Winkler knew it would be a great “service learning” project for her kids—and lots of fun.   

The project required funding to purchase clay and other materials and food.   Winkler and her nascent Empty Bowls committee turned to the Arts & Humanities Council and received a $500 grant to fund the program.  

Forty students participated that first year.  They made the bowls in their art classes.  A simple lunch (featuring Campbell’s chicken noodle soup) was prepared and served by the students in the Liberty Elementary cafeteria.  The event raised $250.  
My bowl

Gaining Momentum

With each passing year, the Empty Bowls Dinner has grown.   Other school arts teachers became aware of the project and got their students involved by incorporating bowl making into their curricula.   Charlotte County high school and middle school students make many of the bowls that are sold at the annual benefit dinner. 

 In 2003 the Visual Arts Center joined the effort by opening its doors to host a free community bowl making event.  The event takes place over the course of two Sunday afternoons.  At the first session, pottery instructors Howard Hartke and Jack Vartanian demonstrate how to make a basic bowl using the pinch pot method.  Participants who want to do something a bit more creative have the chance to embellish their bowls by using molds or drawing on designs.    By the end of the day, over 300 pounds of clay has been transformed into bowls.   

And I Helped!

While Winkler has been the backbone of the Empty Bowls Dinner since its inception, she touts it as a project of the Charlotte County Public School System.   The Empty Bowls committee is comprised almost entirely of teachers and other school district employees.  The school board is 100% behind the project, and has hosted the event in the past.  And the project relies heavily on students both to create the bowls and to work at the dinner.  

To Winkler, student involvement is the key.  She says, “Empty Bowls is an opportunity for everyone to give back to their community.  Kids need to learn about doing for others at an early age, no matter where they are socio-economically.  It’s very powerful to be able to tell my students, ‘We raised $XX, and YOU helped!’  They feel like they have really contributed.” 

Joann Winkler and veteran Empty Bowlers
There’s no doubt that the kids are getting the message.   A few event veterans recently spoke to Winkler’s class about what it means to them to participate in Empty Bowls.  They talked about how it is a chance to “lead by example” and how they enjoy the responsibility of working at the event—whether it’s serving food, ferrying trays, or washing dishes.  They also said that they’re proud to help people who don’t have as much as they do.   

This year’s Empty Bowls Dinner will be held on Thursday, November 7th, from 4:00 – 7:00 at the New Day Christian Church.  The details are still in development, but for the price of admission each attendee will receive three samples of soups made by local restaurants, a hearty slice of bread, and water.   It’s a simple meal that someone who is hungry would be thankful to receive.   Entertainment will also be provided.  And, of course, participants will select a handmade bowl to take home as a reminder of the needs in our community. 

Winkler is hoping to serve 1500 meals at this year’s dinner.  That’s a lot of bowls, and there’s a gap between the number of bowls made by students and the VAC potters and the number needed for the benefit.   Winkler hopes that local potters who’ve made bowls that they feel are not up to snuff (for reasons imperceptible to the ordinary eye) will contribute their creations.  “Artist bowls” get a premium at the event.   

The Need in Charlotte County

Since the first Empty Bowls Dinner in 2000, more than $150,000 has been donated to organizations in our community that feed the hungry.  Last year the benefit raised $17,000, and Winkler is optimistic that that number can be exceeded this year.  The proceeds will be divided among three groups:  the Yah Yah Girls’ Back Pack Kidz program, the Charlotte County Homeless Coalition, and the Homeless Education Project.   

The Back Pack Kidz program fills over 1300 backpacks weekly during the school year with nutritious and kid-friendly foods and delivers them to seven Charlotte County elementary schools.   The backpacks are sent home with children who have been identified as being at risk of having little or nothing to eat over the week-end.  The backpacks are returned on Monday morning and the process starts all over again.    Over 1400 children are being fed through the program each week-end.  

The Charlotte County Homeless Coalition provides a multitude of services to people in need of shelter and food in our community.  These services include a food pantry, a hot meals program, and a 52 bed general population emergency shelter with a focus on families.   As of last, seven families  (27 people) were on the waiting list for a place to stay.  

The Homeless Education Project is a program run by the Charlotte County Public School System. Its goal is to help students who live in temporary accommodations to achieve academic success.  (Temporary accommodations include domestic violence shelters, cars, and public spaces such as woods or tents.)  Among other things, the Project runs a food pantry to facilitate the provision of adequate nutrition to these students.  In the 2012-2013 school year, the Project assisted 494 children; over 180 kids have registered already to participate this year.  

Empty Bowls is an inspiring example of our community coming together to help those less fortunate.  And it’s an event that everyone who wants to help can participate in, whether as a potter or a diner or both.    Soup’s on! 


  1. So inspiring! Makes me wish I knew the right people in my community to get something like this started.

  2. This looks like great fun and what a fabulous opportunity to give back to the community. I'll be there next year!


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