Tempe Empty Bowls lauded for hunger work, looks to future

Ceramic bowls made by students in the Tempe Union High School District, and purchased by attendees at Tempe Empty Bowls events through the years, have helped raise funds to feed the hungry.  Photo courtesy Tempe Empty Bowls

By Janie Magruder

Nearly two decades ago, a group of Tempe humanitarians realized there’s nothing quite like a warm bowl of soup and a soft piece of bread on the side to fill the belly and the soul.

These volunteers started Tempe Empty Bowls, part of an international effort to fight hunger through fundraising events where vessels created by community artists and arts organizations are sold. Hundreds of functional, food-safe bowls, made by ceramics students in the Tempe Union High School District, have been purchased by attendees, raising an estimated $260,000 for Tempe Community Action Agency (TCAA) and United Food Bank.

At the 37th Annual Don Carlos Humanitarian Awards, held virtually Oct. 14, Tempe Empty Bowls received the 2020 Tempe Community Council  Impact Award. It recognizes those who have improved the quality of life, made a meaningful difference, raised awareness, and/or made a significant impact to address a human-service need in Tempe.

“Tempe Empty Bowls has supported hunger relief through an innovative, collaborative and impactful model,” said Octavia Harris, TCC’s executive director. “Its committee members come together with this singular focus to improve individual lives.”

Connie Schultejans, Tempe Empty Bowl’s committee chair and a volunteer from the beginning, said hunger is a bigger problem now due to the impacts of COVID-19.

“The need is definitely greater,” Schultejans said. “The United Food Bank has more people than ever showing up for food boxes. And the TCCA has seen a great increase in demand for meals.”

According to TCAA and United Food Bank, 21 percent of Tempe residents live in poverty. In 2019, TCAA distributed 943,000 meals to Tempe citizens, and United Food Bank gave more than 56,000 snacks to at-risk children through its after-school program.

Tempe Empty Bowls hosts an annual event, in February, that wouldn’t be possible without sponsors, students and volunteers, Schultejans said. Whole Foods Market donates the soup, bread and disposable containers, in which the food is served, and attendees make donations and choose their ceramic bowls.  Additional “knee” or “elbow” bowls made by younger Tempe school children are sold for $1 each.

“Students get an understanding of how making a simple bowl can make a positive contribution to the community, that art is a part of making the world a better place,” she said.

As You Wish Pottery also has donated to the event bowls created by the public at their studios.

“Every community has a hunger issue, and we are happy and proud to have helped alleviate that for people in Tempe,” Schultejans said.

The 20th annual Tempe Empty Bowls is scheduled for Feb. 26-27. Visit tempeemptybowls.org

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