In 2019, Community Lifeline Center distributed 50,000 pounds of food through its small food pantry. In 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic took hold, the nonprofit distributed 740,000 pounds of food, its Executive Director Scott Elliott said.
The nonprofit’s rental assistance program also saw increased demands in 2020, with the center quadrupling the amount it distributed in 2019 for the program.
That’s where Empty Bowls steps in. Empty Bowls is a nonprofit fundraising event that, in years past, has benefited Community Lifeline Center. The event has become so successful over the years that it now covers a large portion of Community Lifeline Center’s annual food costs, Elliott said.
“The funding that Empty Bowls provided, early in , carried us through and helped us with that rapid increase in distribution,” Elliott said. “To say that they were a huge part of enabling our increased distribution is probably an understatement.”
This year’s April event will mark the first time that the fundraiser will benefit a second organization in addition to the Community Lifeline Center. Money raised this year will also go toward Community Garden Kitchen, a nonprofit set to open later this fall. Community Garden Kitchen will provide a restaurant-style dinner service for people who need a hot meal and will offer life skill classes on the weekends.
“Many children who live right here in McKinney will wake up tomorrow not knowing if they are going to have anything to eat,” Empty Bowls Director Jamie St. Clair said in a statement. “Too many Collin County families go without adequate food—it’s up to us to work together to change that.”
Origins of Empty Bowls
The Empty Bowls fundraiser was created in 1990 by a group of potters in Michigan in order to give artists and art students a way to give back to the community, St. Clair said. The event invited people to share a simple meal of soup and then to take home an empty bowl as a reminder of the bowls in the world that go empty due to hunger. The idea spread from there.
Empty Bowls came to McKinney in 2012 at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, off College and Hill streets near downtown McKinney. The event was created to help the church fund its Easter basket ministry, through which the church provided baskets of food to Community Lifeline Center clients, St. Clair said.
When St. Clair first suggested holding the event in McKinney, she was told to invite the community.
“I was scared to death for that first year,” she said. “A, it was the first time I’d ever done the event, and B, I didn’t know any artists.”
That first year featured the work of five local artists, hosted 100 people and raised $4,500, which exceeded St. Clair’s goal of $2,000, she said. After funding the Easter baskets, St. Clair had $600 left over, which she gave to Community Lifeline Center.
The following year, St. Clair set out to raise even more money. Through her efforts, she more than doubled the amount of people attending and provided soup from seven different restaurants, she said.
In 2014, after spending time in the community and at McKinney’s Arts in Bloom event looking for potters and collecting business cards, St. Clair added an art auction. The Empty Bowls event that year raised $10,000.
St. Clair said she works to minimize event expenses so more proceeds can be donated.
Any event that spends no more than half of its proceeds on expenses is considered a success by industry standards, St. Clair said. Empty Bowls usually gives Community Lifeline Center 60% of the funds it raises.
In addition to featuring bowls from art studios, such as St. Peter’s Artist Run Community potters and Jump Into Art Studios in McKinney, the art auction has also featured bowls created by local celebrities, such as McKinney Mayor George Fuller and his wife, Maylee Thomas-Fuller.
“[Empty Bowls has] done a fantastic job of getting everybody ready for [the event],” Thomas-Fuller said. “They started reaching out to the community early in the year and getting all of these art studios to participate.”
Thomas-Fuller said she enjoys seeing the bowls that are handmade in the community to raise money for a good cause.
St. Clair said she believes Empty Bowls resonates with McKinney because of community members’ passion for the arts and for their neighbors.
“It works in McKinney because there’s an incredible art community here, and they’re all super supportive, ... and the artists love the event, and they help a lot, and they’re really passionate,” she said. “But also, people in McKinney love art and soup and a good cause.”
Adjusting the event
St. Clair said that at the conclusion of the 2019 event, she immediately began working on the 2020 Empty Bowls. By March of 2020, she had all her bowls ready for the auction and for the event itself.
“And then, a week later, the world stopped,” she said.
St. Clair opted to hold the 2020 event in a virtual format.
“We already had momentum. We were already selling tickets, so I said [to Elliott], ‘We’re going to at least have an auction, and I will try and raise enough money to get you close to what I gave you last year,’” St. Clair said.
People with tickets were able to pick up their bowls later in the summer, St. Clair said. She sent an email to everyone who had purchased a ticket in which she explained the process and said she hoped patrons would consider their ticket price a donation to Community Lifeline Center; however, she offered a refund to those who wanted one.
“Out of over 100 tickets that I sold, only three people asked me for refunds,” she said. “And then, I kept selling tickets. I sold tickets to an event that wasn’t happening. It was crazy. And the auction was fantastic.”
The event raised $78,000—just $4,000 short of what it raised the previous year. The virtual format also helped keep expenses to a minimum, which allowed about 80% of the proceeds to go to Community Lifeline Center, St. Clair said.
“It’s a phenomenal testament to all the hard work that went into it,” Elliott said. “It also speaks very highly to the momentum that this event has in the community, and how invested people are in it.”
The partnership between Community Lifeline Center and Empty Bowls is a valuable one, Elliott said. The cost of food has increased over the years, and holding the Empty Bowls event each spring helps to create a reserve of funding for Community Lifeline Center.
Even though COVID-19 case counts are dropping, Community Lifeline Center has not seen a reduction in need, Elliott said. Closing out the first quarter of 2021, the nonprofit is on track to distribute more food this year than it did in 2020, Elliott said.
“Knowing for a fact that come spring, we will have the resources we need to acquire the food that we need ... has been incredibly comforting,” Elliott said.
Furthermore, this year, by extending the funding it raises to another nonprofit, Community Garden Kitchen, Empty Bowls will help to feed people and prevent food insecurity on two fronts.
“Community Garden Kitchen [will] fill empty bowls with great meals for anyone in need, no questions asked, no paperwork required,” said Angela Poen, executive director of Community Garden Kitchen, in a statement.
The 10th annual Empty Bowls event will take place April 29 in downtown McKinney. The event will include a showcase of more than 600 one-of-a-kind bowls handcrafted by local professional and student artists. The cost of admission includes a sampling of gourmet soups, breads and sweets prepared and donated by chefs from local restaurants. Guests will also receive an empty bowl to take home and will have the opportunity to bid on the collection of bowls in the auction.
Due to COVID-19, tickets for the event will be limited to about 600, St. Clair said. Additional safety measures, such as hosting the meal outside, have been put in place to make sure the event adheres to all recommended guidelines due to the pandemic. The event will take place rain or shine, St. Clair said.
The 10th event will also be the final one for which St. Clair spearheads the operation. Her family is moving out of the state, so Tammy Snively, the ministry coordinator at St. Peter’s, will take over as director of the event.
“I think it’d be awesome to have a different person in charge,” St. Clair said. “She’ll feel free to do things differently as opposed to doing things because that’s just the way you’ve done it.”
If the McKinney community continues to support Empty Bowls the way it has over the past nine years, Empty Bowls will continue to shine a light on hunger and raise money for organizations fighting it, St. Clair said.
The pandemic has increased the demand for nonprofit services, Mayor George Fuller said.
“All of [the nonprofits] are struggling,” Fuller said. “It’s tough because funding goes down, but the need has increased.”
Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct an error. Jamie St. Clair is moving out of the state.