The Star-Herald

Empty Bowls fundraiser continues tradition of combating food insecurity

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — The University of Maine at Presque Isle’s art program welcomed members of the public to the Sargent Family Community Center this past Thursday evening for a fundraiser that combined good food and local artistry to help those dealing with food insecurity.

This is the 5th year that UMPI art faculty and students have hosted Empty Bowls, a fundraiser for which all the proceeds go to Martha and Mary’s Soup Kitchen in Presque Isle. Local artists and students contributed a total of 196 handmade bowls that were sold for $15 each. Volunteers also served warm soups and bread as more than 40 people gathered Thursday evening to enjoy the meals and each other’s company.

Students from Associate Professor Hyrum Benson’s ceramics courses organize the fundraiser annually, which contributed $2,500 to the soup kitchen last year. Benson said that the handmade bowls had a personal touch for people contributing to the cause.

UMPI art students and local artists created and donated 196 handmade bowls for this year’s Empty Bowls fundraiser, for which all proceeds will benefit Martha and Mary’s Soup Kitchen in Presque Isle. (Melissa Lizotte)

“Many times, people will purchase a bowl from an artist they know,” Benson said. “The bowls themselves, because they’re empty at first, symbolize all the people who have had to go without food on a regular basis.”

The issue of food insecurity is one that is especially prevalent in rural areas of Maine like Aroostook County. A study published by Good Shepherd Food Bank of Maine and Preble Street, a nonprofit organization based in Portland, in 2017 found that Aroostook has the 2nd highest percentage of food insecurity among counties in the state — 17.1 percent of the population.

While the nationwide trend for food insecurity has decreased since the Great Recession from 14.6 percent of the population in 2008 to 12.5 percent in 2015, Maine’s rate remained at 15.8 percent. The study also found that one in every six Maine residents is food insecure, with one out of four of those people being children.

Authors of the study concluded that issues such as lack of transportation, low incomes and employment opportunities and Maine’s time limit policy for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program make it harder for some individuals to break the cycle of poverty and gain regular access to nutritious food.

Empty Bowls is an international grassroots effort to combat hunger that was originally created by the Imagine Render Group. The purpose is to bring artists, educators and community members together to remind everyone of the struggles that many residents have to put food on the table.

“I think poverty is something that we don’t often want to think about, but it’s important that we raise awareness,” said Jami Kass of Littleton, an UMPI art student who has participated in Empty Bowls for the past three years. “When I was a substitute teacher, I saw students whose only meals happened at school because of the free breakfast and lunch programs.”

Friends Cindy Kilcollins of Mars Hill and Lisa Keegan of Fort Fairfield also came out in support of Empty Bowls. For them, a handmade bowl serves not just as a beautiful keepsake but as a way to remember how they’ve contributed to Martha and Mary’s Soup Kitchen.

“When you see the empty bowl sitting on the table, it’s a reminder that there are other people out there with empty bowls that they can’t fill,” Kilcollins said.

Keegan agreed: “Food is a basic need that nobody should have to live without.”

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