One of the many things I value about the city and state in which I live is the importance placed on supporting all citizens. Various programs and events designed to enhance and enrich quality of life abound: from parenting classes for teens (helping both the adolescents and their children) to activities created specifically for the elderly; from cultural events to community discourses; from free entertainment for families to fundraisers intended to help people who are down on their luck… there is not a shortage of ways for a person to get involved in the larger Community.
One event that I saw advertised in a local paper several years ago was a multi-phase community gathering called “Empty Bowls”. Empty Bowls is “an international grassroots effort to fight hunger. Potters and other craftspeople, educators and others work with the community to create handcrafted bowls. Guests are invited to a simple meal of soup and bread. In exchange for a cash donation, guests are asked to keep a bowl as a reminder of all the empty bowls in the world. The money raised is donated to an organization working to end hunger and food insecurity.” I think being hungry is one of the worst feelings in the world (with being cold a close second), so I have a soft spot in my heart for organizations that work to feed and/or clothe people who are without such basic necessities. When I made my 101 list of things I’ve been wanting to do but haven’t yet made the effort to experience, I knew I wanted Empty Bowls in my lineup.
However, I wasn’t sure how I would participate in the event. I could create a bowl (several bowl-making sessions occurred this past winter), or I could volunteer at the event (serving soup, taking donations, cleaning up), or I could arrive at the meal and support the effort with some money and my presence. Making a bowl would have been a fun and ‘familiar’ experience (as I attend random community education classes on a semi-regular basis), and volunteering at the event would have been comfortable for me as well (I donate my time and skills in a variety of ways each week, and I usually feel great after each of these experiences). But for this specific 101 item, I felt called to engage with it by arriving at one of the meal sites, allowing myself to be served soup and bread, and experiencing a small bit of what it might feel like to be dependent on others for food.
So last night I drove to a nearby middle school, and found my way to a local Empty Bowls event.
I walked in the large cafeteria – and experienced an amazingly energetic scene! A big band was playing on a small stage, ten buffet-style tables held literally hundreds of intensely colorful bowls, and the main area of the room was full of people eating, talking, laughing… the energy in the space was absolutely fantastic. I stood at the entryway for a moment, just taking it all in.
A volunteer looked at me slightly quizzically. I smiled at her, explained that I was new to this experience, and admitted that I wasn’t quite sure what to do. She returned my smile with one of her own, pointed to the row of tables, and told me to choose a bowl. Once I had made my selection, I was to go to the donation table, contribute whatever dollar amount I felt was appropriate, and then enter the soup line to receive a serving of my meal of choice.
I slowly walked down the long row of tables, internally appreciating the time and effort that went into creating these hundreds of bowls. A small sign was placed in each section of bowls, noting the individual or group that created them. Ten different elementary, middle, and high schools organized a bowl-making event with their students. Five community organizations also coordinated bowl-creation gatherings. And five local artists each donated a handful of professionally crafted bowls. The presence of all of these bowls, each so individually unique yet somehow also so collectively cohesive, was amazing to me.
After walking down the length of tables, I spied the bowl that I know was meant for me. I imagined a kind-yet-slightly-socially-awkward seventh grade student carefully yet joyfully creating this bowl; and I hoped s/he would somehow know that I appreciated their efforts and abilities.
I offered some cash to the adult collecting the donations, then turned to enter the meal line. The choices (and quality) of the soups and breads definitely exceeded those usually offered at a soup kitchen. (I speak from first-hand knowledge on this one; during my sophomore year of college I spent one Saturday afternoon each month preparing and serving food at the community soup kitchen; and while the food we provided was home-made and certainly nutritious, some of the offerings were ‘just okay’ in the flavor department.) Twenty different local restaurants donated food to support this event; and I was genuinely surprised by the options before me.
I chose the Tuscan Bean soup, and was served by a lovely older woman.
At the abundant bread section, I chose a slice of hearty multigrain.
With my soup and bread in hand, I made my way to the main room of the cafeteria, where milk, coffee, and water were available. Doing my best to balance all of the items in my arms, I carefully found an open seat at one of the 25+ tables positioned in the dining area.
As I ate my meal, I looked around the room, and smiled with every bite. I was delighted by the diversity of individuals who were present at this event. A variety of families were scattered among the tables: children as young as two years old messily gnawed on bread, elementary students happily slurped soup, middle school students talked (gossiped) while their food turned cold, high school students quietly helped clear dirty dishes and refill drinks, parents tended to their kids and tried to maintain some order (and most did very well), people in their 40s and 50s marveled at watching their now-nearly-grown children behaving like real young adults in the world, and seniors in their 70s and 80s knowingly appreciated the laughter and chatter of people gathered together to support a good cause. The energy in the room was so fantastic; it’s difficult for me to convey just how awesome sitting in that cafeteria felt. My heart swelled with appreciation for so much time, effort, care, and compassion all coming together in one place. The feeling of true community was amazing.
As I ate my soup and bread, I was also hit by a wave of appreciation that consuming this night’s simple dinner was a choice I actively made, and not a circumstance I was forced to live every day. Having a light meal in an institutional setting with over 100 other people can be ‘enjoyable’ for one evening; but having to endure that situation day after day for every meal would likely feel overwhelming at best (and realistically, probably more along the lines of depressing, disheartening, even dehumanizing). I am so grateful that I don’t have to worry about where I might get my next meal; indeed, thoughts like these never enter my mind at all. When I’m hungry, I simply go to the refrigerator and take what I want; it doesn’t even enter my consciousness that food would not be there. Yet for some people, having food available is a major victory, a very tangible indicator that things are good for that day. And that is incredibly sad to me.
So… I’m inviting anyone reading this note to seek out and attend an Empty Bowls event in your area. (If you perform an internet search for “Empty Bowls” and the name of your city, and you will likely find at least one event that is reasonably close to you.) And if you live near me, I’ll happily attend an Empty Bowls-sponsored meal with you if you want. I can think of few better ways to turn a little time and money into something truly worthwhile and meaningful.
Back in the school cafeteria I finished my meal, threw away my now-empty paper bowl, collected my ceramic reminder, and walked through the hallways towards the exit. As I turned the last corner before arriving at the parking lot, I saw the poster below displayed on a classroom door. What a fitting end to this evening.