By Olivia Frenkel
For the last eleven years, the Food Bank of Solano and Contra Costa have opened their warehouse doors on the second weekend of October to families, local businesses, and long-time supporters for their annual Empty Bowls Fundraiser. This community event focuses on the important symbol of its namesake: the “empty bowl.” Guests who purchase a ticket will receive a unique, hand-thrown ceramic bowl that is not only used for the simple soup dinner, but will also be taken home as a reminder of those who struggle each day with the task of feeding themselves and their loved ones.
After entering and receiving a ceramic bowl, guests are free to sit at the large, round tables and participate in the raffle or auction. The soup and bread dinner is served promptly after everyone is seated, and guests are able to enjoy their meal while also learning about the Food Bank’s work through a brief speech by the Executive Director, Larry Sly. Shortly after the raffle and auction are held, Mr. Sly leads tours of the warehouses while informing guests on the processes of community wide food distribution. The event itself is just two hours long, yet its preparation took the extended time and effort of many community organizations.
For the last three years, the Suisun Valley 4-H Club has partnered with the Food Bank of both Solano and Contra Costa to host this event. The youth in this group are avid volunteers and they dedicate many hours prior to the event for planning and preparation. As early as mid-August, 4-Her’s meet to photograph the ceramic bowls for the annually redesigned marketing pieces. Once the advertisements are created, they help distribute the flyers throughout their schools and neighborhoods in the hopes of increasing participation. They are also assigned to local organizations such as other 4-H clubs or community groups to spread awareness and ask for donations in the form of either sponsorships or items to be auctioned or raffled. On the day of the event, the 4-Hers, along with Special Events Manager Renée Baptiste and other volunteers, work quickly to set up tables, chairs, and decorations before the doors open at 4:00 p.m.. The layout and timeline of the event at both Solano and Contra Costa warehouses were created by the Suisun Valley 4-Hers within the first year of the partnership and has been used ever since.
In addition to volunteer involvement, the event would be fruitless without the generous donations of local organizations. The hundreds of bowls distributed throughout the event are gifted to the Food Bank by the ceramics classes at Solano Community College. The simple soup and bread dinner, served to replicate an evening meal of someone struggling with providing food, are donated by local soup kitchens in both counties. The auction and raffle prizes are also given to the Food Bank by local farmers, artists, and organizations who recognize the importance of the work.
Since the involvement of the Suisun Valley 4-H Club in 2017, the success of Empty Bowls has grown immensely. The number of registered guests increased from 201 in 2016 to 403 in 2017 and finally to 500 in 2018. Event revenue increased from $4,249 to $7,705 to $8,709 (ticket and revenue information from Empty Bowls 2019 is still currently being calculated). The Food Bank is able to turn each dollar into two meals, so this purely community sponsored event had an immensely positive impact.
However, the significance of this event lies not only within the revenue it generates, but in the awareness it fosters. Many guests at Empty Bowls are new to the Food Bank and their work. Food sorting sign-ups are passed around throughout the event, encouraging guests to come back as volunteers. Pamphlets are displayed on tables with information such as the fact that about 50% of students in the Fairfield Suisun Unified School District alone qualify for free and reduced lunch. Information cards are placed at each table setting showing guests that the Food Bank distributes over 20 million pounds of food to the community each year. This push for awareness makes this event successful, and the symbol of the “empty bowl” remains with the guests long after their departure from the Food Bank.
If you would like to volunteer at the Food Bank or have any questions regarding their work, they can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 1-855-309-FOOD. Their website is foodbankccs.org.