Rebecca Ramer pointed to a precariously balanced stack of handmade bowls in her kitchen cupboard.
“I can’t really even remember how many times we’ve gone,” she said. “The first time was probably before we even moved to Goshen six or seven years ago.”
She’s referring to the Empty Bowl Project, a meal that takes place one night a year at the Goshen Farmers’ Market. Put on by the Goshen Clay Artists Guild, members provide handmade bowls, area restaurants and guild members donate soups to fill them and community members contribute money. The suggested $15 donations go to Goshen Interfaith Hospitality Network (GIHN), a local ministry that provides shelter to homeless people in the area.
“It’s so positive because it gets people together,” she said. “You often see lots of people you know and can visit with them while eating, and the money goes to a good purpose.”
This is part of the reason that Irina Gladun, a sophomore, plans to continue to contribute bowls to the event.
“I think both of the organizations do important work,” she said. “I’m happy to be able to participate in helping homeless families while raising awareness about the local art scene at the same time.”
Gladun was originally connected to the event through her employer, the local potter Mark Goertzen, who owns a studio and store at the Old Bag Factory. In her first year at GC, she contributed two bowls even as a full-time student, and plans to contribute more this coming year as well. Art classes at Huntington University and Goshen High School also usually make significant bowl contributions as part of coursework requirements. Currently, Goshen College has no similar assignment, but nonetheless, several students, including Gladun, contribute independently.
These smaller contributions are in contrast to those of more experienced potters, such as Eric Good Kaufmann, a member of the Clay Artists Guild and an art teacher at Bethany Christian Schools. He contributes somewhere around 40 bowls a year to the event, similar to most of his Guild colleagues.
“It’s definitely a valuable event, but it’s the 17th year now and you can definitely sense some fatigue within the Guild,” he said.
It’s no surprise, since the Guild is only made up of about 30 members, and the bowls have to get spun out year after year, in addition to things like organizing soup donations as well as the actual event set-up and tear-down. Most Guild members are also employed elsewhere, and busy with other commitments on top of the Empty Bowl Project.
This fatigue is perhaps part of the reluctance to expand the event. It would be a challenge for all members to meet the demands of an expanding event, so the Goshen Empty Bowl is staying comfortable at the Farmers’ Market for now.
The event initially started off with a lot of borrowed resources and outside support from the community. Local restaurants like Kelly Jae’s Café and Olympia Candy Kitchen contributed gallons of soups to be served in a variety of kinds (including chili, potato and a classic chicken noodle), and chairs and tables were borrowed from area churches or the Elkhart County Fairgrounds.
Today, it has transitioned to being mostly supported from within the Guild, with more members contributing soups and working with the Farmers’ Market directly.
The Empty Bowl Project is broader than Goshen; it is part of a larger grassroots effort to end hunger with events taking place in other areas for more than 25 years. About seven years ago, the Goshen project underwent a change in donation destinations. Originally supporting both GIHN and The Window, another local organization dedicated to helping the homeless, the event transitioned to giving their revenue totally to GIHN.
Good Kaufmann speaks to the number of people that usually attend, saying it’s consistently somewhere around 800.
“I think we’ve about hit our mark,” he said. “Year after year, it’s stayed at about that.”
However, at times 800 people can feel like a lot, especially when they’re lined up outside waiting to get in the doors.
“Lower-income families often have to wait a lot for a lot of things,” Good Kaufmann said. “People often complain about having to wait a long time for the meal, but maybe this can be a similar experience of someone who is actually going to benefit from this event.”
Gladun emphasizes how enjoyable the Empty Bowl Project is for her as well as the whole community. All she has to do is make bowls, and it’s a contribution to both the Guild and GIHN.
“Also, the idea of everyone getting together and eating soup out of handmade bowls is a very attractive one to me,” she said. “People should do that more often!”
This year, the 17th annual Empty Bowl Project will be taking place on March 25 from 5 to 8 p.m. at the Mill Race Center Farmers’ Market in downtown Goshen.