The Empty Bowl Project Is This Sunday

Select a hand-painted bowl, fill it with soup, and help friends in need

Since 1997, The Empty Bowl Project has been gathering Austinites together on the Sunday before Thanksgiving for a unique event dedicated to fighting hunger in Central Texas. This year’s event is Sunday, November 18, 11am-3pm.

Courtesy of Empty Bowl Project

Attendees are invited to select their favorite locally crafted ceramic bowl, generously donated by a local pottery studio, and have it filled with homemade soup and bread as they kick back, listen to live music, and celebrate the spirit of giving. Take home the bowl to use all year as a reminder that others have empty bowls. Your $25 (or 2 for $40) donation goes to Kids Cafe, run by the Central Texas Food Bank, and Meals for Kids, which is run by Meals on Wheels Central Texas, helping both organizations provide much needed food assistance for your fellow Texans.

There will also be a silent auction for bowls painted by celebrities and local artists, live music, and a quilt raffle. Sponsoring restaurants include Eastside Cafe, Guero’s, Hoover’s Cooking, Jack Allen’s Kitchen, Mother’s Cafe, Thai Fresh, the Hightower, The Soup Peddler, Upper Crust Bakery, and many more.

Courtesy of Empty Bowl Project

Kris Asthalter has been working with the Empty Bowl Project since it came to Austin in the late Nineties after being originally founded by John Hartom, a Michigan high school art teacher, and his students. She was immediately struck by the simplicity of the event’s message. “People less fortunate have empty bowls,” she says. “People who come to the event choose an empty bowl, have it filled, enjoy a meal, and then take the empty bowl home with them to remind them that others aren’t so lucky.”

She feels like Austinites connect to the simplicity the image the Empty Bowl Project presents – a visual reminder that we all have friends and neighbors who suffer the effects of hunger. Attendees are invited to pick out their favorite bowls, a medium that Asthalter suspects was probably originally chosen by Hartom and his students because, she imagines, “Bowls were a relatively easy form to throw on the wheel and/or hand build,” and fill them with soup – “an inexpensive way to feed a large group.”

But just because the concept of the event is simple doesn’t mean the planning is! Asthalter and her Austin co-director Hester Weigand work all year long to plan the event, building in intensity as the big day gets closer and closer in the fall. “Throughout the year Hester and I secure sponsorships, deal with taxes, insurance, bookkeeping, getting silent auction signatures from celebrities, meeting with the food bank and Meals on Wheels to review the previous year, etc. – the nuts and bolts,” says Asthalter.

Courtesy of Empty Bowl Project

The duties also include securing commitments from local restaurants and bakeries, hosting bowl decorating parties with sponsors, gathering groups of ceramic artists gather to make and decorate bowls, lining up musicians, organizing program listings, signing up volunteers, designing and printing the T-shirts (which change every year), filming TV spots and ads, obtaining permits, renting tables and chairs and tablecloths, and, of course, as Asthalter adds, praying for decent weather. The day of is all about the hustle, as Asthalter, Weigand, and their crew heat and serve 8-10 different varieties of donated soup as they manage the silent auction, hand out bowls, sell shirts, and generally try to keep the chaos to a minimum.

Asthalter, a potter in her own right, who used to be studio manager at ClayWays Pottery Studio, says that idea of tying a yearly giving event to something as quirky and handcrafted as pottery is one of the keys to the event’s constant popularity. “Austin has its share of potters and people who like pottery,” she says. There’s something about the bowls themselves that fits in with Austin’s "Keeping It Weird" ethos. “Some of the bowl decorations are pretty weird, and fun, and beautiful,” says Asthalter. “Something for everyone.” Not for Asthalter herself, though, who says she won’t be picking out a bowl this year. “I’m too busy during the event,” she says. “Besides, I’ve got plenty of bowls.”

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