Founded by two art teachers in Michigan in 1990, The Empty Bowls Project is a fundraising event for which students create as many bowls as possible and donate them to benefit local hunger relief. School community members are invited to a meal where they buy a bowl that is filled with hearty soup made by local restaurants.

“What struck me about it is the ability for students to use their artistic prowess to make a difference,” says Brady Stout, the teacher who initiated the project at San Marcos High School in 2008. The first year, students made 60 bowls and raised $600. The school’s efforts doubled the second year, and it has grown ever since.

R. Rowe Middle School, Credit: Dana Dabney

Though the project requires two months of intense work, students are enthusiastic and willing. Some even dedicate an entire Friday evening to “Midnight Bowling”, where they throw as many bowls as possible from midnight to sunrise.

Students in Stout’s ceramics class at San Marcos High School learn the patience and pride it takes to fashion a lump of clay into a bowl. And after a semester of teaching pottery basics, a new year begins, and Stout takes his students on a journey where both they and the clay are transformed. With help from guest speakers from the food bank, Stout introduces the assignment that turns into “the best day of the year”, according to event parent coordinator, Josie Smith.

“It’s deeply personal. I ask students to make something that takes a lot of effort and creativity and ask them to give it up for something that is bigger than themselves. You see the joy in their faces when someone chooses their bowl from the sale table. The altruism is infectious,” he says. Local restaurants, parents, and teachers donate the soup, chili, and salads that fill the bowls.

On event day, the quad fills with an eager rush of students, parents, teachers, even school board members. “It’s the one day each year where all school stakeholders sit down together,” says Stout. “The bowl that people buy serves as a reminder at home that we can do something by donating to a greater cause. It’s not just about one meal. It serves as an inspiration.”

Last year, Stout’s students raised $6,800 for the Jacobs & Cushman Food Bank.

San Marcos High School
Courtesy Brady Stout
San Marcos High School
Courtesy Brady Stout

San Marcos High is not alone in its adoption of Empty Bowls.

Since 2007, Coronado High School has held successful Empty Bowls events, selling over 400 bowls last year with help from the local potters’ guild. Ceramics teacher Kelly Telebrico celebrates the opportunities for students’ talents to shine and the teamwork it builds as they make and glaze bowls and promote the event.

CHS contributes its earnings to smaller local charities such as Kitchens for Good and Mama’s Kitchen, where donations go a long way. Though this year their project is on hiatus as students construct a piece of 3D art for the school, Telebrico hopes to partner with local organizations in hosting future events to bring in even more support.

At R. Rowe Middle School in Rancho Santa Fe, each of Dana Dabney’s ceramics students learn about poverty and hunger in San Diego and the work that the Food Bank does before making their bowls. Some step up to sell tickets and host the event. “We contributed almost 125,000 meals to people in San Diego this year. When students hear that their artwork is able to have this impact, they see their hard work paying off,” Dabney says.

Beyond the obvious effects on the students and the good they have done to raise money toward relieving hunger, a ripple effect of good has transpired in the lives of participants.

Coronado High holds an annual “Family Bowl-a-thon” in which teens teach parents and siblings how to use the potter’s wheel. The students’ leadership helps strengthen family bonds as they create memories and give back together.

R. Rowe Middle School, Credit: Dana Dabney

Dabney’s journey with Empty Bowls has come full circle. Her experience with the project began as a high school student in Virginia. She went on to lead an Empty Bowls event at a service-learning conference as a college student and says that what convinced her to take the job at R. Rowe Middle School was its commitment to hosting Empty Bowls fundraisers.

All three of Josie Smith’s sons have taken ceramics at San Marcos High and graduated with a love for the art form, but her middle son, Troy has been affected in the most profound way. He has decided to carry on the torch as a studio art major with plans to teach high school ceramics and continue the Empty Bowls legacy. And he is not alone.

Ayat Musa, a 2015 graduate of SMHS is growing her own ceramics business, making functional art for local companies. She also volunteers regularly in Mr. Stout’s class loading kilns and donating bowls she makes to the cause. She credits Stout’s leadership in “helping students with every step to do their very best” as the reason for her continued involvement.

Help Fight Hunger in San Diego

Feeding San Diego

Kitchens for Good

Jacobs & Cushman Food Bank

Mama’s Kitchen

Start an Empty Bowls Project in Your Child’s School

Tips from the Kitchn

Get in touch with the schools already participating:

San Marcos High School

R. Rowe Middle School

Coronado High School

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