- Cullman, Alabama


February 10, 2013

Empty Bowls of Cullman event draws near

CULLMAN — Think one or two people can’t change the world? Ah, but you are wrong about that.

When John Hartom and Lisa Blackburn decided to do a little project to help with a local food drive in their hometown in Michigan, they thought it would end there. “We thought we were just having lunch,” laughed the co-founder and executive director of Empty Bowls, John Hartom.

That lunch turned into a grassroots movement that now covers 50 states and 20 countries — and counting. “Last week we received requests for information from both Ireland and Mongolia,” said Hartom.

For that first lunch, Hartom and Blackburn enlisted the help of the ceramics instructor at the local high school, who in turn sought the help of his students who agreed to make the bowls for a class project. “We wanted to tie it in to World Hunger Day,” he explained.

The premise was simple. “Potters and other craftspeople, educators and others would work with the community to create handcrafted bowls,” said Hartom. “Guests are invited to a simple meal of soup and bread. In exchange for a cash donation, guests are asked to keep a bowl as a reminder of all the empty bowls in the world. The money raised is donated to a local, national or international organization working to end hunger and food insecurity.”

Hartom created the non-profit organization’s format to fit into any community. “Whoever was in charge of the Empty Bowls project at the local level would then determine how the money raised was donated. The only stipulation was that it be used to fight hunger in some way. Most of the events use the donations to benefit their own communities,” he said recently in an interview with The Cullman Times.

That first little lunch cost each participant $5. “It raised $600, and we thought it would end there,” he said. “It seemed like a really big deal at the time.”

People responded so well to the concept that Hartom began to share a little information about hunger here and there. “It continues to astound me even today. We began to challenge people over the next few months. We sent out more materials which included a return form so that we could track the progress of the project.”

Those forms have now amassed into an archive in Burnsville, N.C., where the founders relocated.

Since its inception, Empty Bowls has raised many millions of dollars for hunger-fighting organizations. “We could never have imagined all the things people have done or all the ways the project has touched people,” said Hartom, still awed by the global response.  

“Each individual or group organizing an event designs it around the needs of their own community and is responsible for their own event,” he explained. “We ask that these events are called Empty Bowls so that the idea can continue to spread.”

According to the Empty Bowls website, “The largest hunger-relief organization in the United States, Feeding America, reports that the nation’s food banks could soon be overwhelmed by demand. Statistics show that 1 out of 8 Americans struggle with food insecurity every day. Millions of people have lost their jobs during the most recent recession and the number of food stamp recipients has increased dramatically. Your help is needed now more than ever.”

Local hunger activist, Tanya Shearer, was one of the people who heard about Empty Bowls and was moved to respond to the call. This year marks the 10th anniversary of Empty Bowls of Cullman. Shearer, along with an army of faithful volunteers, has made this event a huge success. Over the course of those 10 years, it has raised $79,800 for the Cullman Caring For Kids United Way Food Bank. Last year alone there were 800 people in attendance.

“Empty Bowls of Cullman County is a wonderful testimony of God at work in our community using people of different ages, talents and abilities. It is truly amazing how God brings so many people together for this one special night in our community and blessed all of us,” said Shearer.

The first Empty Bowls dinner in Cullman was planned in two months,” she recalled. “God was at work again. The first planning meeting was in September and the dinner was in November of 2003. We thought that maybe we would raise $2,000 and serve 200 people. As it turned out we served over 600 and were able to give the food bank $5,400. We ran out of chili and sent members of the First United Methodist Church (FUMC) youth group, who could drive all over town buying cans of chili,” she said. “Bobby Nolen was not very happy about that and since that time has always made sure that we have more than enough chili. It is always a challenge to judge the amount of chili to prepare, which is why we try to sell tickets in advance.

“Empty Bowls chili is so special because it is only made once each year and I think that Bobby's secret ingredient is love,” added Shearer.

“One of my favorite parts has been to watch children growing up helping their parents each year. By their parents’ example, these children are now teenagers and college students and are coming back to help on their own. We see the Empty Bowls tradition being passed down from one generation to another,” she pointed out.

“Clint Creel has helped in the kitchen and also washed dishes for several years. Now his son is helping. Another father, Jon Laidley, his wife and daughters help to serve each year."

Philip Jester, son of Shelia Jester (CCFK) has grown up helping his mother each year and is now a college student and volunteering. We are truly blessed to have so many wonderful people participate in EB each year. Over the last 10 years, it is mind boggling to consider the thousands of bowls made by the potters, the amount of chili that has been ladled, and how many songs have been sung each year,” said Shearer, gratefully.

“The Empty Bowl potters work hard all year long and over 10 years have made thousands of bowls,” said Shearer. “We are truly grateful to Lynn Jetton and all of the potters, who work so hard.”

“It has been a great 10 years,” says Executive Director of Cullman Caring for Kids, Javon Daniel. “When Tonya first approached me about Empty Bowls to help the Cullman Caring for Kids (CCFK) Food Bank, we were both unsure of the outcome, but wow, what a difference 10 years makes.”

“God has blessed CCFK so much through Empty Bowls, but not just CCFK,” Daniel continued. “He has blessed this whole community in more ways than we can count. Just to name a few: New friendships, fellowship, fun, creativity at its finest, and so much more, including the individuals and families that have been touched in so many ways. What else can we say but ‘Thank You, God for it all’.”   

“Empty Bowls of Cullman has such a warm place in my heart because the people of Cullman give so much of themselves to make this a huge success in this community to stop hunger,” says Assistant Director of Cullman Caring For Kids Nancy Bryant. “It is hard to explain the atmosphere the night of Empty Bowls, but it is something I look forward to each year. Congratulations to Cullman for your 10 years of dedication!”

This years Empty Bowls of Cullman will be held from 4:30 to 7 p.m. Monday, Feb. 18, 2013, at Cullman First United Methodist Church, Hearin Hall. The 10th annual event will feature a chili dinner, silent auction and musical entertainment.

All this focus on hunger stemming from a little lunch has exceeded Hartom’s wildest expectations. He is indebted to people like Shearer who have worked tirelessly to promote the cause about which they are both so passionate. Like any non-profit organization they depend on community support, so bring your appetite and join the fun at Empty Bowls of Cullman’s 10th anniversary.

Live entertainment will be provided by The Revelations, The Potentials, Enell Baker and Shannon Green.



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