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How to Combat Food Insecurity with Pottery

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For 22 years, Austin Empty Bowl Project has raised awareness for food insecurity in Central Texas.

By Deborah Lynn Blumberg, Photos by Alan Pogue and Studio Stence

For the last 22 years, Austinites have spent the Sunday before Thanksgiving lined up outside the Central Texas Food Bank. They wait with doughnuts, books and board games as they inch closer to the reason they came: to have the first pick from thousands of handcrafted ceramic bowls.

Community members who flock to Austin Empty Bowl Project’s annual family-friendly event make a $25 donation ($40 for two bowls), choose one from thousands of locally crafted ceramic bowls in all shapes and sizes, fill it with gourmet soup donated by local restaurants and enjoy lunch together while listening to live music from local musicians.

Attendees bring their bowls home, where they serve as a reminder of fellow Austinites with empty bowls. Hunger is a pressing concern in Central Texas. According to the USDA, about one in six American children are food-insecure, meaning they lack access to quality, affordable, nutritious food.

“The event is a real, tangible way to remind people that they’re fortunate, and there are others who aren’t,” says Kris Asthalter, a local potter and co-director of Austin Empty Bowl Project. “Having that bowl makes people think.”

Austin Empty Bowl Project, founded by Kit Adams, the owner of ClayWays Pottery Studio & Gallery, was the first Texas chapter of the national program. Proceeds from the Austin event benefit Meals for Kids, a program of Meals on Wheels Central Texas, as well as and Kids Cafe, a program of the Central Texas Food Bank that provides children with a warm evening meal, tutoring and a safe place to stay after school.

Austin Empty Bowl Project has raised more than $1 million since its inaugural event in 1997 and has only grown in popularity.

“We didn’t even know if anyone was going to come,” Asthalter says, “and then it exploded.”

The first year, potters donated 600 bowls. The following year, there were twice as many bowls, and for the last several years, there have been more than 4,000 pieces made by potters, pottery students and even local Girl Scout troops, who earn a badge for participating.

More than 30 local restaurants, bakeries and independent chefs donate food—including the likes of Eastside Cafe, Café Josie and Upper Crust Bakery—and a committee of a dozen local potters helps Asthalter and Hester Weigand, a potter herself and co-director of Austin Empty Bowl Project, with the event. Close to 200 gallons of soup, including gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan and vegetarian options, are ladled out each year, Asthalter says.

“We have a great, enthusiastic and generous group of volunteers,” Weigand says, “folks who come back year after year and work on it all year long.”

Weigand, for one, typically makes hundreds of bowls in red and white clay to donate. For the white clay bowls, she hosts a party at her studio, inviting friends and family to decorate one.

In addition to the thousands of bowls available on event day, the organization also creates celebrity bowls to auction off, those made and decorated by local potters for certain actors or musicians. Throughout the years, celebrities like Arlo Guthrie, Joan Rivers and Jerry Seinfeld have each autographed a bowl for the silent auction.

This year, celebrities include rock band ZZ Top; famed astrophysicist, author and TV host Neil deGrasse Tyson; and singer-songwriters Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison. The event will be held Nov. 18 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Central Texas Food Bank at 6500 Metropolis Drive. A gala held the previous night for sponsors is also open to the public for $75 per person.

 

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