A small line of very cold people formed outside the Charles Wright Academy, a private school in Tacoma, the morning of Nov. 23. The hardiest would wait for two hours in the 46-degree weather, eager to grab a plum spot at the head of the line when the school’s doors would finally open at 1 p.m., ready with their shopping bags and personal handbaskets like they were about to go to the farmers market.
When the clock hit 1 p.m., the line had billowed to hold nearly 400 people. When given the signal, people rushed indoors, drawn to folding tables full of the day’s wares like a cloud of locusts at harvest time. When the crowd receded, the tables were practically bare.
The must-have holiday item? Bowls.
Saturday was the Emergency Food Network’s (EFN) annual Empty Bowls fundraiser that transformed the school into a pop-up shop where the organization’s supporters can go and purchase any of 1,300 bowls donated by local artisans before enjoying hot soup with their neighbors. Proceeds benefit the network, which boasts the ability to turn $1 into five nutritious meals for needy people in Pierce County.
Shoppers head from the checkout to the school’s cafeteria where they had the opportunity to enjoy one of five soups donated by local restaurants ranging from the “Mulligatawny” — a dairy-free curry soup with chicken, rice and apples — to Russian rye bread soup.
EFN aimed to raise enough money for 190,000 meals during the event, which is one of five major fundraisers the organization throws every year, said Michelle Douglas, EFN’s chief executive officer.
Although Empty Bowls isn’t the largest fundraiser EFN throws, it is a fan favorite, Douglas said.
“It’s a tradition for people,” she said.
People like Dian Lord, who has been supporting EFN for 20 years. Lord was near the front of the line, a sure sign that she had arrived early to get the premium wares. She likes that the bowls are handcrafted by Pierce County artists, and that the money goes to food banks and to meals for people in need.
That need has grown more visible over time as the homelessness crisis explodes throughout the region, making the depth of poverty in the area easier to see.
“Feeding people is important,” Lord said. “I want to support the people of Pierce County.”
Inside, bowls were marked with color-coded stickers to indicate the price. The craftsmanship varied from beginner to expert. Around 170 of the bowls came from one pottery class at Tacoma Community College.
Jen Davis remembers one of her first contributions to the fundraiser 15 years ago when she was just starting out in pottery. She had donated what she called a “wonky little sideways bowl” that listed to the side a bit, but she saw one happy customer pick it up with a smile and carry it to check out.
“I was hooked,” Davis said.
This year, Davis and 10 or so people who work with her at the Jennifer Davis Pottery studio — soon to be the South Tacoma Artist Collective — donated 550 bowls to the event. One such was a communion set Davis had crafted on commission. She made many versions of each piece in the set and selected the absolute best for her customer, reserving another for the Empty Bowls event.
It’s the impact that keeps her coming back. “You take a $10 bag of clay, and some time, love and effort turns dirt into $1,000 of food,” Davis said, prompting Douglas to joke that it’s kind of like farming.
Some of the food EFN distributes is grown on its eight-acre Mother Earth Farm in the Puyallup Valley. The farm is one of many supply chains that keeps EFN’s food programs operational. That plot produces as much as 180,000 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables. EFN runs it in partnership with a nearby women’s correctional center so that participants can leave incarceration with a job reference and useful skills.
“There are many paths to homelessness, and very few paths to redemption,” Douglas said.
As the regional homelessness crisis has grown, EFN and its partner food banks have had to change how they operate to meet numerous people’s needs who lack access to stoves and refrigeration. Bags of uncooked rice and beans, for instance, are dead weight for homeless people, and the number of people experiencing homelessness who show up at the food banks appears to be on the rise.
Two years ago, roughly 15 percent of people who went to one local food bank were experiencing homelessness, Douglas said. That number has spiked to 30 percent.
The shifting population also means that EFN and its partners have to adjust for different kinds of medical conditions, like hypertension and diabetes. But, Douglas said, the organization is up to the challenge and committed to helping the food insecure in their community.
After all, when one in five children and one in seven people in Pierce County struggle to put food on the table, the people who are suffering are everyone’s friends and neighbors.
Douglas said, “A lot of us are one medical bill away from needing support.”
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC.
Read the full Nov. 27 - Dec. 3, 2019, issue.
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