For the past five years I've been helping my neighbors Adriana and Nina host an Empty Bowls event in our shared courtyard in Oakland, California. The basic purpose of Empty Bowls is to raise money for our local food bank, the Alameda County Community Food Bank. And while we've been super successful in doing that (we raised over $10,000 this year!), Empty Bowls is so much more than collecting checks and tallying up totals. Empty Bowls creates and strengthens our community, supports our local artists, celebrates delicious food and beautiful pottery, and educates people about hunger and poverty.
While it does take some work to put on an Empty Bowls gathering, it's a lot of fun and absolutely worth your time and effort. Here's how we did it.
What Is Empty Bowls, Exactly?
The core purpose of Empty Bowls is to raise funds for local food charities and educate people around issues of poverty and hunger in their community.
The core of the event is a supper where, for a donation, guests choose a bowl and to fill it with soup. They then sit down among the other guests, eat their soup, and learn a little about how their donation has helped to fill the truly empty bowls of people less fortunate in their community. The bowls are theirs to keep and in some circles become real collectors items.
Beyond this basic premise, there are a lot of variations on how an Empty Bowls event is handled. The originators wanted it that way so that communities could make it their own, based on their needs and resources.
The History of Empty Bowls
Adriana and Nina did not invent Empty Bowls. It started back in the early 1990s when Lisa Blackburn and John Hartom decided to do something to counteract the negative news around hunger and poverty in their area. So John, a high-school ceramics teacher, challenged his students to throw 120 bowls which they used at the first Empty Bowls luncheon held at the school, charging $5 per bowl to raise funds to fight hunger. The event was a success and right away people began duplicating it all over the country and, eventually, all over the world.
My neighbor Adriana, an amateur potter, first read about Empty Bowls in a magazine called Studio Potter and was immediately taken with the idea. She enlisted the help of our other neighbor Nina and the first Empty Bowls Oakland was successfully launched in 2011.
There are annual Empty Bowls in some parts of the world that have been happening for over 25 years!
What Is It Like to Host an Empty Bowls Gathering?
I won't kid you — it's a lot of work, but I can say unequivocally that it is worth it and actually a lot of fun. I would also say that it is most definitely a team effort. I cannot imagine organizing an Empty Bowls event on my own, so if the idea appeals, be sure to loop in some friends.
That said, most of the work happens in the month or so leading up to the event, especially the week before, and for maybe few days afterwards to tie up loose ends. The first year will take the most work, as you are putting systems into place and learning as you go. Many Empty Bowls run like a well-oiled machine after a few years.
Step 1: Empty Bowls and Your Local Food Bank
The first step in creating an Empty Bowls gathering is to contact your local food charity and let them know you are thinking of doing an Empty Bowls gathering.
Most food banks should know what Empty Bowls is, as it is a popular fundraising activity. In fact, don't be surprised if your food bank hosts an Empty Bowls of their own, especially if you are in a larger city. There is, unfortunately, always a need to raise funds to fight hunger, so even if there is already an Empty Bowls happening in your community, don't let that stop you. There is no reason not to be one of many such events.
Often the food bank will have helpful materials on how to host an event or at the very least how to handle the funds once they come in. Sometimes they are even able to send one of their staff to the event to give a talk or hand out fliers on hunger, food insecurity, and ways to support their efforts to feed people.
If you will be soliciting donations for your event (wine, bread, chair rentals, etc.), it's helpful to get a letter from your food bank/charity to show that your event is official. Your food bank should have a basic form letter they can quickly modify to match your event.
By the way, it's not a rule that your funds have to go to your local food bank. There may be another food or hunger-addressing charity in your area that you are interested in supporting, or you may want to divide your earnings over a couple of organizations. Either way, check with them first so you understand the basics around raising money for them.
Step 2: The Location
The next thing to think about is where you want to hold your Empty Bowls gathering. Think about how many people you anticipate will attend, if there are bathrooms, if you will need a kitchen. What happens if it rains?
Our courtyard, which is surrounded by four houses, is perfect for our event, which draws about 125 to 150 people over the course of five hours. It's not big but it's beautiful and one house (mine!) provides the kitchen to heat up the soups, and another the bathroom for the guests.
Our location is easy to get to and has an intimate feeling that greatly adds to the experience. That said, you may find that a church basement or community center is a better location since they often come with access to kitchen and bathroom facilities.
Other things to think about that relate to the event location:
- Are there tables and chairs or will you have to bring them in?
- Is there somewhere for people to rinse out their bowls when they are done?
- If there isn't a kitchen, do you have a way to keep the soup hot?
- Will you be serving additional things such as bread and butter, drinks that need to be kept cold, or cookies or other dessert, and do you have all the equipment to handle that?
Step 3: The Bowls
The origin story of Empty Bowls is from the ceramics community, so often the bowls that are offered are handmade.
There are a number of ways to gather the bowls needed for the event. In our case, Nina and Adriana solicit donations from their potter friends, both professional and amateur. They leave donation crates at pottery classes and schools and talk to galleries about offering pieces. This means that we end up with a delightful, eclectic collection of bowls to choose from: large, small, bumpy, smooth, shiny, matte. There is always something for everyone!
Some of the more high-end professional potters donate their seconds, which are often only slightly "imperfect." Some of these pieces end up in our silent auction, which I will say more about below.
In other Empty Bowls, a single potter makes all the bowls or a special bowl is commissioned. It's a lot of work for a potter to do this and can also be expensive for them when you factor in their time, materials, kiln time, etc., so be careful around asking for this level of donation. At the same time, I have read essays from potters who do this and find it to be a very moving experience — something they are happy and grateful to do.
It could be that handmade bowls just aren't possible in your circumstance. Don't worry! You can still host an Empty Bowls gathering. One solution is to use hand-painted bowls from one of those ceramic painting shops (maybe have local kids paint them?) or collect interesting and funky bowls from your local charity shops. Or have everyone bring a bowl from home but then swap it for a new one at the event.
Step 4: The Soup
Part of what makes our Empty Bowls gathering so great is that we live in a community full of excellent and passionate cooks. So it's no problem to find 15 or so people to donate pots of soup. Nina's husband, Max, takes care of this and while he isn't the spreadsheet type, we still end up with enough soup of a nice variety. People often linger and sample small ladles of several kinds of soup throughout the afternoon, which leads to a joyful, convivial atmosphere.
If you are a spreadsheet type or don't want to leave things up to chance, I would recommend being sure you have both vegetarian and vegan soups as well as meat-based soups. Our ratio was about 50/50, but you can gauge that depending on your community. Your spreadsheet can also help you keep track of who brought what, which will help you later with thank you notes.
How much soup should you arrange for? That is a tough question, as so much depends on time of day, time of year, and the people coming. The great thing about soup is that it is very forgiving. If you feel you are running low, a soup can often be stretched a little with some water and additional seasonings, although we have never had to do that.
For our roughly 150 people, we had 13 pots of soup in various sizes and we had plenty left over.
The soup is brought to my kitchen, with pots eventually covering nearly every available surface and all four burners. The soup arrives throughout the event, sometimes still hot. Since the soup is consumed quickly, we don't worry about refrigeration, but you may want to think about that when considering the location (see above) — especially for meat-based soups.
We ask that people label their pot with their name and type of soup and to not bring a ladle, as it's really hard to keep the ladle matched with the pot once things get moving. When they arrive with the soup, we write down an ingredient list on an index card, which we prop in front of the soup when it's being served. We try to offer two soups at a time — one vegetarian and one meat-based.
Empty pots are whisked back into the kitchen by volunteer runners and full pots are whisked back out to the serving table. Somehow, it all works out and we have never run out of soup. The pots are immediately washed out and left on my back step for pick-up. We also keep track of the soup makers and what they brought so we can send them a special thank you.
If all this organizing sounds like too much, you can serve just two kinds of soup (veg and non-veg) or ask for donations from your local restaurants. Some Empty Bowls have the restaurants come to the event and serve their soup or you can also just pick up large containers from them and heat them up on site.
Step 5: The Invitation and RSVPs
You can be as casual or as organized about this as you want. However, having a rough count of how many people are coming is important, as it will help you plan for the number of bowls and pots of soup to gather. Nina and Adriana have moved to an online invite system, which makes it really easy to track the mailing list and schedule reminders and stay on top of RSVP numbers.
Of course, you have to hold the final count loosely. Some people won't come, some will bring extra friends. It always helps to over-plan slightly, as it's better to have a little left over than to run out.
Step 6: Staff and Volunteers
Having a small crew of volunteers is critical. For our Empty Bowls we need people to cover the following stations:
- Money/donation table
- Serve the soup (and switch out pots)
- Clean tables and empty trash
- Refresh the condiments and sides
Since our event lasts five hours, we have shifts for the servers and runners. Another helpful neighbor handls the beverage table, pouring wine and sparkling water.
With the help of a friend, I hold down the kitchen to manage the soup flow, and Nina and Adriana serve as hosts and help with the silent auction. Nina's husband, Max, is available for any last-minute logistics and runs to the grocery store.
In our community, people really love this event and so it's often not hard to find volunteers. In fact, the more people you can involve, the more joyful and stronger the feeling of community is.
Step 7: Education
A key part of Empty Bowls is to educate people on issues of hunger and food insecurity in your community. Since our event is five hours in duration, we schedule two times for Nina and Adriana to give a brief presentation to the group and this year, we were honored to have a staff member from the food bank come and say a few words and answer questions.
Other Logistics of Hosting an Empty Bowls Fundraiser
- Payments: We try to make it easy for people to pay, so we encourage online donations in advance as well as take cash and check payments at the event. We also have a laptop available if people wanted to make an online donation at the event using a credit card. Out food bank makes it possible to donate directly to them on their website under the name of our event, which was really helpful.
- Beverages: We have been lucky to get donations of wine from local businesses and, to keep it simple, we serve sparkling bottled water as the non-alcoholic alternative.
- Garnishes and side dishes: We try to keep the garnishes simple and offer yogurt and sour cream, chopped cilantro and parsley, and a tray of various hot sauces. We also ask that our soup makers not bring elaborate garnishes for their soups, as it's hard to keep track of them once things get going. Our local restaurant Pizzaiolo donates loaves of beautiful bread, which we let people slice on their own. We also purchase butter for the bread and put out a jar of honey from Adriana's bee hives.
- Dessert: This is totally optional, but since we have a very talented baker as a friend and neighbor, we also offer a small selection of desserts. She makes easy-to-handle cookies and bars so we don't have to bother with having forks and plates on hand.
- Disposables: We try very hard not to bring in too many plastic or paper disposables, although admittedly disposables make some of the logistics easier. Much depends on what you can handle and how important being plastic-free is to you. Pizzaiolo also lends us soup spoons and glasses, making it possible for us to keep the landfills just a little less full. We've also started collecting soup spoons from garage sales and thrift stores to have our own stash. We purchase paper napkins as well.
- Ladles & leftover containers: Other extras to have on hand are three or four ladles to rotate with the soups and several to-go or empty yogurt containers to distribute any leftover soup.
- Washing up: We create a simple rinsing station where people can rinse off their bowls and provide a stack of newspapers to wrap them up in. We also fill up a bucket of soapy water for dirty spoons.
How Much to Charge for an Empty Bowls Event?
We ask for a $25 to $250 donation for entry to the event, which gives our guests the bowl of their choice and as much soup as they can eat.
We hold a couple of driveway ceramics sales before and just after the event to raise money for miscellaneous purchases and to bump up our donation a little. This is of course optional, but it makes it possible to send all of the donated money to the food bank and not hold any back for extra costs.
Our food bank, the Alameda County Community Food Bank, is an award-winning organization that is considered to be one of the most efficient nonprofits in the country. They can transform a $1 donation into $6 worth of food, so we want to give them every possible penny!
This is a fundraiser for a critical organization, so it was important to emphasize that $25 is only the minimum donation and to encourage people to give more, which they often do. We also want to be sure that all of our community feels welcome, so the sliding scale is perfect.
Another way to raise a little more money is to run a silent auction with some of the fancier bowls donated. Also, sometime potters will donate plates or vases or cups, so this is a chance to use them. A silent auction is a whole other layer of organization, so if you're just starting out you might want to add this feature at a later event once you have your systems down.
Step 8: Cleanup and Gratitude
The final thing to do on the day of the event is the big cleanup. If someone offers to help, be sure to say yes because it's really great to have the extra hands after a long day. This year, we had lots of help and so got things settled and cleaned up fairly quickly.
Then we all sat down over ice cream cones and leftover wine, feeling tired but grateful for the enormous generosity of our friends and community. Some people made soup, some served soup, some made the bowls or the cookies or the bread, some reached deeper into their wallets and upped their donations. Everyone gave according to their ability.
Step 9: After the Event
Plan on spending a few hours in the days after the event on the financials, chasing down promised donations, finalizing your total, and matching people with their silent auction pieces. You will also have pots and other donated items to return and, of course, thank you notes and acknowledgements to write.
Community Created Through Generosity (and Soup)
After our event this year, as I sat there I felt what an enormous privilege it was to be a part of this. I was so full of appreciation that this is the world I get to live in, a world where community is enacted through generosity and a willingness to work together. Yes, it's hard to turn on the news these days and yes, people can be hurtful and difficult. And yes, putting on an event as big as Empty Bowls means there will be the occasional clash of style and ideas.
But mostly Empty Bowls is about making a great effort towards something essential: finding, creating, building, and nourishing a community that holds as its highest value the notion that we need to take care of each other above all else, that there is enough for everyone if we just come together and pool our resources.
Yes, this is the world I get to live in and to live in it is a gift. May I never forget it.
Her first book, Finding Yourself in the Kitchen: Kitchen Meditations and Inspired Recipes from a Mindful Cook (Rodale Books) is available wherever books are sold. She lives in Oakland, CA. Visit Dana at her website. Read more of her work for Kitchn.
More Resources for Your Own Empty Bowls Fundraiser
- Empty Bowls Project: The official site
- 12 Crowd-Pleasing Soup Recipes That Are Perfect for an Empty Bowls Fundraiser
- Fighting Hunger Through Soup: An Empty Bowls Gathering in Oakland: Dana's first dispatch on Empty Bowls (from 2012)