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Empty Bowls 2023 brings the community together

Last Friday, May 12, Carleton and the greater Northfield community partook in a beloved decades-old tradition: Empty Bowls. On that muggy afternoon, hundreds of bowls and mugs of all types were waiting to be picked by the crowd of students, faculty, staff and Northfield residents. Folding chairs and plastic tables were strewn across the west side of the Bald Spot, around which people congregated — bowls in hand — to enjoy the soup filling their chosen piece of ceramics. To appreciate the spirit of this event and the incredible amount of hard work that went into it, one must travel almost two decades back in time. 

Carleton’s Empty Bowls program was established in the 2004-2005 school year by Kelly Connole, Professor of Art. Carleton’s Empty Bowls is part of a larger international movement centered around bringing communities together to raise awareness and funds to address hunger. A donation of $25 per bowl is suggested, with all proceeds being donated to those in need. That first spring, accompanied by student Dustin Yager ‘06, Connole brought 150 bowls to Sproncert. 

The next year, after a steep learning curve brought about by this event’s hectic nature, Empty Bowls transitioned away from Sproncert, becoming its own event and branching out to engage the Northfield community. At this pivotal turning point, Brick Oven Bakery donated bread and Bon Appetit donated water, apples and flatware. Soup was also served for the first time, and the event began to resemble the tradition we know and love today. 

The spring of 2007 saw a heightened engagement from Carleton students as interest houses began to earnestly provide soup for the event. Students further engaged with the mission of the event by traveling to the Northfield Community Action Center Food Shelf for the first time. 

A decade later, in 2017, a new ceramics course, ARTS 230: Throwing, was introduced; the class kept Empty Bowls at the center of coursework. Through this course, which still exists at Carleton today, students create hundreds of ceramic mugs and bowls, which are donated to be sold at Empty Bowls. 

As the tradition ramped up and more people joined, students created an increasing number of bowls, leading to an increased amount of money raised. At this point, in 2012, the CCCE took an organizational role in 2012 and has coordinated soup-making and food donations for Bon Appetit and Brick Oven Bakery since.

CCCE fellows Lucy Shapiro ’23 and Elise Lehman ’23 offer insight into the CCCE’s role in the Empty Bowls program. The CCCE begins planning Empty Bowls a year in advance. There are “a lot of moving pieces,” so the coordination is vital to the event’s success. CCCE fellows make educational materials in addition to recruiting volunteers, reaching out to local bakeries about bread donations and working with Kelly Connole in the Department of Art and Art History to make sure the event runs smoothly. With the CCCE taking care of the logistical aspect of Empty Bowls, art students can focus on the labor-intensive creation of the bowls and mugs, and volunteers can direct their efforts towards perfecting their soup recipes. 

Donations from volunteers and organizations are essential to Empty Bowls. As Shapiro and Lehman assert, “We could not have this event without the contributions of the Carleton and Northfield community.” This year, “over 30 volunteers donated soup to Empty Bowls, [and] Bon Appétit generously donated two large Cambros of soup, which was a great help.” Shapiro and Lehman went on to highlight the donations of two local bakeries, Brick Oven Bakery and Bread People, which were “really great in ensuring the success of the event.” 

Shapiro and Lehman also appreciated the driving mission behind the Empty Bowls program, underscoring how the event facilitates heightened understanding of food insecurity. “We think Empty Bowls has a great impact on raising awareness in the local community. Having the CHAT trailer was a huge help this year with informing people what we were raising money for. Also, having representatives from the Community Action Center at this event is awesome, because they are so knowledgeable about these issues and want to share!”

“We love seeing it all come together!” Lehman and Shapiro reflected. “It’s such a fun day, and seeing all the faces that put so much work into this event on the Bald Spot is really special.”

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