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Empty Bowls, Full Stomachs


Video: Nikki Saraniti

Mid-morning light filtered through the wide windows of the Oxford Community Arts Center, illuminating an unusual centerpiece of the room: row upon row of colorful bowls of all shapes and sizes.

A tiny blue bowl, not much bigger than a teacup, sat beside a massive, deep green bowl that was criss-crossed with etched-in lines. Bowls adorned with Chinese writing nestled next to bowls with painted-on stick figures in all manner of poses. A bowl with a verdant forest scene bumped up against one with a tapestry of orange and red swirls stretched across its surface.

All levels of skill were on display, representing the wide variety of sources these bowls originated from. Some came from Talawanda high schoolers, others from You're Fired uptown, while more still came from community artists and volunteers. Each of the bowls found its way to the Oxford Community Arts Center for a good cause: fighting hunger.

Last Saturday was the 16th annual Oxford Empty Bowls event, a soup luncheon hosted by Oxford residents in collaboration with Talawanda schools, Miami University and the city of Oxford. Participants gathered to raise money for the Oxford Community Choice Pantry, with smaller amounts of money being raised for other local hunger relief efforts like Crossroads Outpost, the Open Hands Food Pantry and the BackPack Program.

Oxford Empty Bowls is a branch of a global initiative, Empty Bowls, that began in 1990 in Michigan as an effort to fight hunger at the community level.

Rob Abowitz is an associate director for residence life at Miami, but he's also an avid potter who helped to contribute over 300 bowls to the event this year. He hosts an annual "bowl-a-thon" where local artists come together and throw bowls over the course of two days, with all produced pottery going to Empty Bowls.

"I've thrown bowls for all but a couple of the events," Abowitz said. "[Empty Bowls] is just great, and it's been built up to something that involves hundreds of people and does so much good."

Alongside potters like Abowitz, volunteers make soup, donate pastries and other baked goods, staff and organize the event. Even Miami students, over 100 this year, get involved.

Elizabeth Grace Huddleston, a senior majoring in urban and regional planning with minors in French and individualized studies, helps by contributing bowls to the event from her ceramics studio off campus.

"[Oxford Empty Bowls] just does so much," Huddleston said. "I love how it creates a sense of community. Even the event space at the Community Arts Center is great because it allows both Miami students and Oxford residents to come, and the event itself raises awareness of hunger in Oxford, which is awesome."

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Connie Malone, one of Empty Bowls' three co-organizers, has been involved for 15 years, missing only the inaugural iteration of the event. Alongside Alice Laatsch and Ann Wengler, she brings the event together every year, partnering with local organizations, advertising, coordinating the food and bowls and making sure everything runs smoothly.

In 2003, in the midst of research for her job at the Farmer School of Business, Malone discovered that one-third of Talawanda school students participated in free or reduced lunch programs, and that many of them weren't able to consistently eat meals outside of school.

"So, when I heard about what Empty Bowls was doing, you know, it sounds cliche, but I felt moved, I felt engaged to be a force of good in this direction," Malone said.

Since the first event, Oxford Empty Bowls has raised over $88,000 for hunger relief efforts in the Oxford community, with each annual event raising more money than the last.

Malone says what makes the event so special is its deep ties to the community around it.

"What I think we've managed to do so well is building community," Malone said. "Since we aren't a part of any specific organization, everybody feels free to help and everybody feels free to come. Everybody can own a little piece of this and make it their own."

In her eyes, Oxford Empty Bowls is intrinsically tied to the community it helps. She said that, while she's completely on board with the growth of the event, she hopes that it maintains the bond it has with Oxford.

"There's actually a lot that we don't want to change," Malone said. "Sure, we could raise more money if we raised the price, but we want to keep the event accessible. We don't want it to feel like a gala, because while there's a place for those events, that's not what Empty Bowls is about. We don't want to lose the character of the event or stray away from the crowd that it's aimed at because this is something that everyone can be a part of."