Empty Bowls fundraiser helps fill pantry for Interfaith Community Services

Empty Bowls fundraiser helps fill pantry for Interfaith Community Services

On Saturday, March 7, about 1,200 handmade bowls will become more than ceramic vessels: They become the means to stock the shelves of Interfaith Community Services’ food banks and fill its mobile food pantry.

They also become a reminder that there can never be too many cooks in the kitchen — or too many volunteers on the ground — when it comes to battling food hardship.

“Empty Bowls is just such a motivating event. The artists and potters who create these beautiful bowls, the restaurants who provide soups and desserts, the volunteers and staff who organize the event, and the people who attend are all working together to try to combat hunger in Tucson,” said Sylvia Buchanan, coordinator for Empty Bowls: A Fundraiser to Fight Hunger and Feed Hope.

The event, which seeks to raise at least $110,000, will be held from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at the Tucson Chinese Cultural Center, 1288 W. River Road.

The premise is simple: For a $25 ticket, participants receive a hand-crafted bowl of their choice; they then fill the bowl with samples of soups, stews, breads and desserts courtesy of more than 20 restaurants and food vendors. Attendees can also participate in a silent auction and raffle featuring art, jewelry and other items.

“This is an event that appeals to many people. We have intentionally kept the ticket price at $25 to make it accessible and affordable to everyone — many families bring their children and parents and grandparents, so it is a multi-generational celebration,” said Buchanan.

Buchanan said the event mirrors the diversity of food insecurity in Tucson, which impacts one in five families in Pima County.

Last year, the ICS Food Bank, which partners with the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, distributed more than $3.2 million worth of food to more than 25,000 low-income seniors, individual and families in Pima County. More than 33% of those served are school-age children.

Over the past several years, ICS has expanded from flagship food banks at 2820 W. Ina Road and at New Spirit Lutheran Church, 8701 E. Old Spanish Trail. It now also offers distribution sites through its refrigerated mobile food pantry at 101 W. Irvington Road, Suite 2A, in the El Pueblo Neighborhood Center, at Desert Dove Christian Church, 6163 S. Midvale Park Road, and at other locations periodically.

“Our mission is really to bring food to where people need it the most. Many times they are unable to travel to Oro Valley or to the east pantry. We are trying to make it a little more convenient for them,” said Tom McKinney, ICS CEO.

With this growth, Empty Bowls has become a vital component of fundraising for the ICS Food Bank distribution programs, according to Karen Latendresse, chief development officer.

“It is a critical. Our supplies are really depleted over the holidays, so this fundraiser really helps us get through the spring,” said Latendresse.

The event has also become a tradition — and a labor of love — for the volunteers, sponsors and attendees alike, according to Buchanan.

“These potters are artists. About 150 of them work day and night every year to make 1,200 bowls for Empty Bowls. Then talented chefs and bakers from local restaurants create wonderful soups, stews and desserts. Each year when they are finished, a majority of them say, ‘We will be here next year. Count me in.’ They are all extraordinary,” said Buchanan.

Susan Fulton, who is co-owner with Mary Steiger of Gourmet Girls Gluten Free Bakery and Bistro, is a seven-year veteran of the event.

“This is one of the best things we can do as restaurateurs. We are all about food, so how could we not help out a food bank that supports people in the community who don’t have enough to eat?” said Fulton, who plans to serve a chilled vegan carrot-ginger soup and dairy-free French bread at the upcoming fundraiser.

Fulton said she is grateful for the opportunity to cater to those who may have dietary restrictions.

“We usually do dairy-free or vegan soups because lots of people have restrictions besides gluten ... many people love to go to events and want to support charities, but if they have restrictions, there may not always be something they can eat ... so we are excited to provide them with options,” she said.

Fulton said it is also gratifying to support ICS in its diverse efforts to provide a “hand up” for those in need with programs that include emergency financial assistance and homelessness prevention as well as financial literacy; a job resource center that helps clients attain or maintain employment; and a volunteer corps that provides in-home services such as Mobile Meals, transportation, home repairs and convalescent care for seniors and disabled individuals.

ICS also targets the cycle of poverty through Single Mom Scholars, a two-generation approach that enables low-income single mothers to graduate from college and increase their earning potential while assisting their children with academic and leadership skills. The program will serve more than 25 mothers and 75 children this year.

Fulton also views the hand-made bowls she has collected over the years at Empty Bowls as a daily reminder of the artists, businesses and individuals who work together to overcome hunger.

“Every year we get another bowl and it is such a treat. All those artisans donate their time and skills and the bowls are so beautiful and unique. We have a nice collection from over the years and it is very special to us,” she said.

She literally carries that reminder into her business every year after the event.

“After the event is over, they often have leftover bowls. We sell them in our restaurant and give the proceeds to ICS, so no bowls go to waste. It is our pleasure to support them and make sure all of the bowls find good homes,” she said.

Contact freelance writer Loni Nannini at ninch2@comcast.net

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