The Empty Bowls Fundraiser Highlights Neighbors’ Hunger

The Empty Bowls fundraiser strives to make neighbors’ hunger visible.

Sadie Miller uses a lot of paperclips. She works on the board of directors for the nonprofit St. Louis Park Emergency Program (STEP) and keeps her paperclips in a small glazed bowl on her desk. About the size of an ashtray, the bowl also serves Miller as “a reminder about what my purpose is,” she says.

Her sons, 10-year-old Landon and 7-year-old Preston, keep change in their glazed bowls. What they collect goes to STEP, which helps financially struggling St. Louis Park residents throughout the year with coat drives, transportation services, toy drives, school supplies, a food shelf as well as events that raise poverty awareness, such as the annual Empty Bowls fundraiser in March.

Miller and her kids picked up their bowls at one of the Empty Bowls fundraisers—commemorative bowls made and donated by local elementary and high school students to remind their owners that hunger, although largely invisible in St. Louis Park, does exist.

Empty Bowls Marks 15 Years of Hunger Awareness

Empty Bowls celebrates its 15th year on March 9 at Westwood Lutheran Church, which provides grants to STEP programs every year. Usually, approximately 10 area restaurants will donate soup, with all attendees receiving a couple ladles full in compostable paper bowls supplied by the city—a simple meal with bread and water that’s free, although STEP welcomes donations. “For a lot of people in St. Louis Park, that’s all they can afford,” Miller says.

Last year, the event drew over 1,100 people. That’s about a quarter of the nearly 4,000 residents who rely on STEP every year, or roughly 8.5 percent of the St. Louis Park population.

In 2015, 3,800 residents used STEP. Of them, 3,600 accessed STEP’s food shelf on West Lake Street. Of those, about 1,500 were children. While 46 percent of those residents used STEP as a supplement, 10 percent identified STEP as their sole resource for food.

“It’s a challenge to provide consistent, quality food to the hundreds of people who come in every day,” says executive director Derek Reise. The organization gets bread, fruit, vegetables, meat and dairy from food banks like Second Harvest Heartland in St. Paul and Golden Valley. Food that grocery stores cannot sell, because it is just at or past the expiration date, STEP will purchase (or pay a small fee for delivery). Every dollar spent by STEP can secure at least eight dollars’ worth of food for clients.

Bowl-makers Among Many Volunteers

With that greater impact of monetary donations in mind, potters Pat and George Foulkes have sold dozens of bowls of their own making at Empty Bowls over the past three years. The bowls—each about five pounds of clay thrown on a wheel, fired and glazed—sell at the fundraiser for between $5 and $40, with all proceeds benefiting STEP.

George, a retiree, volunteers to set up, too. In a room at Westwood Church the night before Empty Bowls, he installs his shelving units, unfolds some of the long tables provided by the church and lays down bright tablecloths. Boxes of myriad small, decorative coin dishes by elementary school students, or pieces cast over Styrofoam molds and glazed or worked into cereal bowls by high schoolers and community education groups, fill the tables. George sets out the commemorative ones, free for the taking—about 500. The rest he divvies up: some worth $5, others $10. About 60 in total are priced; they are crafted by him, Pat, and other artists; 30 or so are often donated anonymously by the Northern Clay Center. The trick is to price them so they all sell. A bowl worth $40 could buy $200 of food from a local food bank.

Since the March event began in 2001, STEP has taken bowls from 12 to 15 donors every year, including schools, studios, Scout groups and religious communities.

“People will ask, ‘Can I put it in the microwave? The oven? Can I freeze it?’ The answer is yes,” George says.

Matt McLeod, a special education and art teacher at St. Louis Park High School, has rounded up the food-safe ceramics since the event started. As a longtime volunteer for many causes, he’s noticed the issue of hunger speaking to people universally.

“It doesn’t matter if you go to a synagogue, a church, if you’re a Democrat or a Republican. There aren’t that many events that cut across everything the way this does,” he says.

Hunger Doesn’t Discriminate

Although most people don’t have to think about hunger, when it hits, it does not discriminate.

“There are people who have donated to STEP for years, and then they have an emergency and are surprised that they need our services themselves,” Reise says. A 2016 survey from Bankrate.com found that 63 percent of Americans don’t have the resources to come up with $500 to $1,000 in case of an emergency. As housing rates rise in St. Louis Park, residents still hurting from the recession find their situations unusually fragile.

“People become homeless or have to find affordable housing much farther away,” Reise says.

Before using the STEP food shelf, 38 percent of the 3,600 clients in 2015 said they occasionally went hungry. After using STEP, 70 percent said they never went hungry. Three percent still experienced hunger two to three times a month.

“Some clients will lose a job and come in once or twice, then never again,” Reise explains. “Others with limited fixed income—on Social Security or disability, who might never have the finances to buy food—will come in for years.”

Every week, volunteers appraise food for expiration dates and recalls to stock what Reise describes as STEP’s “mini grocery store” on West Lake Street.

At the Empty Bowls event, volunteers number in the hundreds and include Girl Scouts, high school football players and employees from the contributing restaurants. Parents shop for bowls or eat using the city’s donated compostable spoons and napkins at one of the tables while their kids decorate grocery bags to bring home and fill with food for STEP.

“Everyone’s in a good mood because they’re getting fed,” McLeod says. “No one group dominates, and you’d be surprised at how long people stay and visit with their neighbors.”

In the midst of it all—full of volunteer opportunities and presentations on poverty and live music by kids in choir and band groups—it’s impossible to pick out exactly who it’s all for.

Empty Bowls takes place March 9 at Westwood Lutheran Church, 9001 Cedar Lake Road, free. Lunch 11:30 a.m.–1:30 p.m., dinner 5–7:30 p.m.