Making Art Into Good Works: Empty Bowls & Hungry Children


by: J.B. Weisenfels

Tucked away in a corner of Van Buren High School is a room that not many area schools can boast. It’s the classroom of art educator Kara Holland, and it’s also a ceramics studio complete with kilns, glazes, and high school students who are learning how to shape sculptures and pottery from clay.

In the early part of the calendar year, even in the weeks leading up to winter break, the art students in Van Buren spend time working on a very important project. They make bowls. Not just any bowls, either. They make bowls that, during the month of February, will be filled with soup and sold for $15 each. The event is called Empty Bowls, and it’s a way the budding young artists of Van Buren are working to end a pervasive problem in our region—the problem of childhood hunger.

The value to the attendees is well worth the donation. Attendees get to choose their own bowls out of the hundreds lovingly made, glazed, and fired by high school students and the guest artists recruited for the event. They get to sit in the Van Buren High School Commons with a bowl of warm vegetable beef soup, a piece of fresh bread, and a glass of iced tea. They get to spend time alone or as a family, among members of the community who have come to the event to support the cause of feeding hungry children.

Empty Bowls is an international program that allows anyone to hold a fundraiser bearing that name, as long as the proceeds go toward ending hunger. Van Buren High School’s Empty Bowls event is in its ninth year, and all of the proceeds go toward helping the children of the River Valley cope with food insecurity through a nonprofit organization called Community Services Clearinghouse.

The program that Empty Bowls supports is called Meals for Kids, but you may have heard it called “the backpack program.” This program allows teachers and administrators to identify children who are suffering from food insecurity so that those students can take home bags of nutritious food to carry them through the weekends when their cupboards are bare and there is no school lunch line to calm their hunger.

The name of the event is significant, as taking a bowl home serves as a reminder to attendees of the “empty bowls” in our community. Though the owners of the functional art objects may not suffer from hunger, every time they fill the handmade bowls they bought, it is supposed to be a reminder of children whose bowls would remain empty, but for the generosity of the broader community. The response to the event has been fantastic—the money raised for Meals for Kids runs between $1,200 and $3,000 each year, and the turnout is stellar.  Attendees typically purchase between 175 to 200 bowls of soup during the event.

The benefit to the community doesn’t end with the bags of food sent home with students, however. The students at Van Buren High School learn valuable lessons as well. They learn that art can be functional and make a tangible difference in the world, and they learn what it means to serve their community—literally. Student volunteers from the Art Club and FCCLA dish up the soup, they cut the bread, and after the bowls are empty, students wash the bowls so that they can go home with their rightful owners. The vegetables used in the soup are also an act of service from the students of Van Buren High School; they come from a canned food drive held on campus.

Local businesses are involved as well. Mountain Spring Water donates cups and water. Chili’s of Van Buren provides iced tea. The Grapevine Restaurant in Paris donates fresh bread, while Advanced Meat Processing donates the beef for the soup served at the event. Local musicians donate their time, and guest artists make bowls to donate, too.

The young people pictured here are VBHS alums who returned during their winter break from college to make bowls for the event.

Empty Bowls is an event that brings the arts together for an important cause, an event that pulls from the generosity of conscientious local businesses and allows high school students to experience service to their community—perhaps even to their own classmates. The community then responds by appearing at the event, $15 tickets in hand, to enjoy delicious food among people who care, and to receive a handmade bowl that they can use in their own homes.

The children who benefit from the Meals for Kids program may not know that an event was held to raise the money used to purchase the food they’re given. They may never lay eyes on one of the art objects that helped fill their weekends with nutrition, but as they enjoy a meal they would not otherwise have had access to, it’s nice to think that across town—or even across the county—another family is sitting down to eat dinner out of bowls made for the express purpose of filling bags that go home with hungry children.

This year Empty Bowls will be held on Thursday, February 15th from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Tickets will be available at the door or from area partners in the weeks leading up to the event. In addition to the $15 bowls, the event this year will include smaller bowls for children 12 & under, priced at $7. You can expect to find live music and student artwork on display during the event.  More information is available here.

J.B. Weisenfels

J.B. Weisenfels is a lifelong resident of the River Valley who serves as Editorial Curator for BSavvy Magazine. She holds a Masters of Fine Arts in Writing from Spalding University and a Bachelors of Fine Arts from the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith, where she received the Academic Excellence Award for the 2013/2014 academic year. When she is not writing or editing, she enjoys reading, writing, and having long conversations with her two children and all her very excellent friends and family members.

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