A warm bowl of belly-filling soup conjures a lovely image, but for many, that’s all it is. According to Feeding America, the country’s largest domestic hunger-relief organization, 28 percent of the District’s children under age 18 are food insecure, which means they lack reliable access to adequate, nutritious food.
To help combat the problem here and nationwide, the Capital Area Food Bank will augment its eighth annual Empty Bowls campaign with a fall effort called Fill the Bowls. The food bank occupies a 123,000-square-foot facility in Michigan Heights and partners with 444 nonprofit community agencies, including Martha’s Table, D.C. Central Kitchen and Manna Food Center, to distribute 42 millions pounds of food annually to Washington area residents.
At Empty Bowls events, the $35 that participants pay will get them a handmade bowl donated by a local potter as well as soup, bread and desserts from stations helmed by several local chefs.
When Nancy E. Roman attended her first Empty Bowls in Dupont Circle as the incoming president and chief executive of the food bank in October 2013, she decided “we need more of these! So we added Springfield and Bethesda.”
Empty Bowls has become Roman’s favorite event: “There’s a short program about why hunger matters, great soup, live music and you leave with a beautiful piece of pottery. It’s fun and fast, and each bowl represents 87 meals for food-insecure people.”
Chef-restaurateur Ris Lacoste has ladled soup at Empty Bowls for several years. “A lot of heart and soul goes into making soup, and that gets transferred to the people you’re making it for. That, combined with feeding the hungry, makes it a wonderful event. And the potters! I can’t get enough of the bowls; they are so symbolic.”
Last year, Ilva Olinto, an art teacher at Sheridan School, a private kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school in Northwest Washington, had each of her 26 third-graders make two bowls: one to keep for themselves, the other to give to Empty Bowls.
“In third grade, kids want everything for themselves,” say Olinto. “This shows how important it is to give to others. It’s a philosophical way to teach kids about social justice and integrate the arts.”
Kirsten Bourne, the food bank’s director of marketing and communications, spoke to Olinto’s third-graders about hunger and then divided them into four groups. She had one child in each group sit while the others stood.
“I told them that the seated children represented the number of kids in the District who are food insecure and asked them what they would think if the friend sitting down next to them didn’t have food in their cupboard like they do,” she explains. Olinto says it sent a powerful message. This year, she is involving the whole school.
At the Empty Bowls in Dupont Circle on Oct. 21, Lacoste will serve Portuguese kale soup with spicy sausage and kidney beans, something she ate often while growing up in New Bedford, Mass. “Last year I made hambone soup with whole yellow and green peas, not split, and hominy. My mother always made it after a ham dinner,” she says. “It’s good.”
Chef Shannon Troncoso, of Brookland’s Finest in Northeast Washington, got involved in Empty Bowls last year when someone dropped out at the last minute. “Capital Area Food Bank is our neighbor. I’ve been there. They serve hundreds of thousands, teach classes to show people how to cook better and make better choices, take food to people that don’t have access to good food, which is something really cool to me,” she says.
Other restaurants and food purveyors participating in Empty Bowls this year include Del Frisco’s Grille, Teaism, Penn Commons (Dupont); Thai Café, Houlihan’s, Wegmans (Springfield); and Robert Wiedmaier Restaurant Group; Mon Ami Gabi, Soupergirl (Bethesda). Contributing potters include District Clay, Eastern Market Pottery, Capitol Hill Arts Workshop and Hinckley Pottery.
Though effective, Empty Bowls presented a conundrum for the food bank’s Roman.
“These events require hard real estate, and we were reaching maximum capacity,” she says. That’s how the second part of the fall campaign, Fill the Bowls, came about. The idea is to get local companies to encourage their employees to sell bowls made by Golden Rabbit Enamelware, based in Arlington, for $25. (Each bowl, which Golden Rabbit donates to the food bank at cost, signifies the purchase of 62 meals for children, families and seniors who are food insecure.) The Fill the Bowl challenge began Sept. 1 to coincide with Hunger Action Month and runs through Oct. 16, International Hunger Day. Any company can participate.
“When people go online and buy the bowl,” Roman says, “they find out about hunger and discover different ways of engaging there. It’s up to the employers to inspire employees to run with it.”
To date, 15 companies have signed up, among them Cardinal Bank, Harris Teeter, Car2Go and Nest-DC. Keller Williams Capital Properties tops the leaderboard with sales of $4,755, followed by Customink T-Shirts with $2,575. As of Sept. 22, the campaign had raised $13,971 toward this year’s Fill the Bowls $45,000 goal.
Click on the food bank’s Fill the Bowl Challenge online link and an image pops up of hands curling around an empty bowl imprinted with the Food Bank’s logo and its Twitter hashtag. As Empty Bowls contributor Toby Rivkin, a Baltimore potter and Roland Park County School teacher, says, “Who doesn’t understand holding an empty bowl and wanting something in it?”
Companies that would like to participate in the Fill the Bowls campaign can register at www.capitalareafoodbank.org/fill-the-bowl. Hagedorn is a Washington food writer and cookbook author.