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North Hills Monthly

Empty Bowls Dinner Brings Attention to Childhood Hunger

Apr 30, 2016 12:06PM ● By Shelly Tower Rushe

When art teacher Noele Reynolds held the first Empty Bowls dinner at Haine Middle School (HMS) in 2011, she had no idea how the event would evolve over the next five years. All she knew was that it was a creative way for kids to better understand food insecurity in their community while making art. Now, the school is about to break a record while helping bring awareness to hunger.

The idea of Empty Bowls began 25 years ago as the brainchild of Michigan residents Lisa Blackburn and John Hartom. Students make ceramic bowls and paint them with their own designs, and the bowls are presented at a fundraising dinner that consists of soup and bread. Patrons pay for the meal and their choice of a handmade bowl. The bowl is symbolically left empty to draw attention to a situation that many Americans face on a daily basis. 

According to Feeding America, Butler County alone has more than 7,000 children suffering from food insecurity. Malnutrition affects children physically, emotionally and intellectually, and these children often have developmental delays and are at higher risk for chronic health problems such as asthma. Studies have also shown that food-insecure children may be at greater risk of truancy and school tardiness; when they are in school, they experience an increase in behavioral problems such as fighting, anxiety, bullying and hyperactivity. 

While larger cities like Pittsburgh have a centralized food bank, suburban communities like Cranberry Township depend on small regional food banks, like Gleaners Food Bank and Lighthouse Foundation. These centers depend heavily on food and monetary donations which can be slower in the summer. Donations like those from Empty Bowls can help bridge that gap. 

Reynolds waited until 2014 to hold the event again. “I don’t repeat it every year; I want the kids to only experience it once, so that it’s fresh,” she explained. 

In 2014, Reynold’s fifth and sixth-grade students produced 800 bowls. She set up a camera on the stage in the cafeteria to record the 90-minute event, and from that footage, created a three-minute time-lapse video that she submitted to the Empty Bowls Foundation. The video was a standout and was included in the foundation’s 25th anniversary event, Working Together Everyone Eats, in Rhode Island. “We were the only middle school in the world represented in the education section,” Reynolds said, adding that the event, which featured 1,100 bowls, inspired her to do something bigger for the next HMS event. 

For 2016, Reynolds has set a big goal for herself and her students—to break a record by creating 3,000 bowls. “I worked with Empty Bowls headquarters in Rhode Island, who shared that their biggest issues were location and lack of artists. I had both right here,” she said.

She explained the project, and the local need, to her kids. Some were surprised to hear that they had classmates who didn’t have enough to eat, while others mentioned that their churches or Girl Scout Troops had participated in food drives. All of them were quick to help. 

With less than a month to go, the students are on track to break the record—with help from community painters including Cranberry Township supervisors and staff, volunteer firefighters, the Seneca Valley School District staff, the Haine PTO and many more. “They’re bowl-making machines,” laughed Reynolds. To date, restaurants providing soup include Moe’s Southwest Grill, House of Chen, Freedom Square Diner, Primanti Bros., Hines Ward’s Table 86, Flour & Sugar Cakery, Loafers Bread Co., and Longhorn Steakhouse.

“We are expecting a couple of thousand people to attend,” Reynolds said, adding that she is grateful to all of her students and community helpers, the restaurants that are donating food, Armstrong Cable and Cranberry Noon Rotary for their monetary donations, HIP Printing for donating the tickets and many others.

The event is scheduled for May 12 from 5:30-8:30 p.m. at Haine Middle School in Cranberry Township. Tickets are $10 and include a meal and your choice of a handmade and painted bowl. Tickets can be purchased at the Haine Middle School office during school hours and at the Cranberry Municipal Center.