PUTNEY—The 15th annual Empty Bowls Dinner will take place on Saturday, Oct. 6, at Landmark College.
The event is the largest fundraiser of the year for Groundworks Collaborative’s Food Shelf, which provides high-quality supplemental food for more than 1,000 individuals each month. This year, Groundworks hopes to sell out the dinner — 700 tickets — and raise $35,000.
“Hunger is much more prevalent in this area than people realize,” said Rosie Gardner, who has managed the Groundworks Food Shelf for four years.
Empty Bowls serves to raise awareness of local hunger while providing a pleasant community experience, Gardner said.
Last year, the event raised $32,000 for the food shelf program, said Development Director Libby Bennett.
According to Groundworks, each $25 raised can provide a month’s worth of supplemental food for a family of five.
“The fact that the event brings hundreds of people together in order to ensure that our neighbors in need in Windham County have enough food to eat is very important to me,” said Scott Sharland, co-chair of the event’s steering committee.
“It’s inspirational to see so many people volunteer their time, energy, and resources to make this event happen,” he said.
The food shelf program has grown in the last four years, said Gardner. When she first arrived, the shelf operated out of a small room at the Drop-In Center on South Main Street. Approximately eight to 10 people per hour moved through the space. Meanwhile, said Gardner, those waiting to access the food shelf waited as many as 30 minutes.
With the help of volunteers, Gardner spent a weekend painting the building’s garage, installing shelves, and relocating the food shelf.
“It just changed a lot of things,” Gardner said. “But we still need more space.”
Now, at least 20 people will move through the shelf each hour, she said.
Grocery chains donate food
With food, it’s not just about quantity but also quality when it comes to combating hunger and keeping people healthy, Gardner said. Food quality becomes even more important for growing children or for someone with a health condition like diabetes.
Groundworks gathers food for the shelf through multiple programs.
One program, Fresh Rescue, allows organizations like Groundworks to take donations of “day-old” food from local stores.
Gardner and volunteers visit local grocery stores like Hannaford and Market 32 (Price Chopper) three times a week. Cumberland Farms and Shaw’s in Wilmington also participate, she said.
Groundworks also visits the Vermont Foodbank.
“There’s a tremendous amount of food out there that would be wasted if it wasn’t for us,” she said.
A resource for a primary food source
Groundworks originally organized the food shelf to provide a supplemental food source, Gardner said, but many people, in her opinion, have needed to use it as a primary food source.
“Who wants to come to a food shelf if they don’t have to?” she asked. “Some people can’t take care of themselves, and we have to help them.”
Gardner said the cost of living — specifically, housing — brings to the food shelf most of the clients she works with.
For them, rent is a fixed cost, she said. Electricity, heating, and insurance are also fixed bills, Gardner continued. At the end of the day, food is the one bill people can alter or get by with less.
Or, someone who is homeless might not have a place to store food, she continued.
Gardner dreams of adding a deli-style section to the food shelf, offering prepared meals for clients who don’t have a kitchen or people who don’t cook.
Gardner estimates she serves approximately 300 households a week. The number of people in a household varies, she said.
The number of people using the food shelf has increased over the past three years, she noted.
In fiscal year 2018, the food shelf served 921 households. In fiscal year 2017, it served 810 households, and in fiscal year 2016, that number was 612.
“Food is a human right,” Gardner said. “There’s so much food in this world and so much thrown away.”
Empty Bowls dinner
The dinner has two seatings: one at 5 p.m. and the other at 6:30 p.m. Each simple meal includes local homemade soup, bread, and cheese in a handmade bowl to keep.
Guests will be able to choose from signature bowls made by many of the region’s most talented potters.
Soup selections include chicken noodle, potato leek, split pea and ham, curried butternut squash, Turkish lentil, butternut squash, vegetarian black bean, and sausage and white bean.
More than 15 local cafés and restaurants are donating homemade soups to the dinner, and musicians will perform.
“People are excited, asking about which potters have contributed bowls this year, and strategizing about how to choose the best bowl possible,” Sharland said. “As one of the greeters for the event, the reactions of the attendees is really a treat to see.”