Hundreds of families and friends of the Oxford community embraced the crisp fall air on Saturday, Nov. 15, waiting for 15th annual Oxford Empty Bowls to begin. Upon entering the Community Arts Center, individuals could select one out of 1,3000 uniquely decorated bowls.

The benefit soup luncheon, led by Connie Malone, Alice Laatsch and Ann Wengler, raises money and awareness for food insecurity in the Oxford community. Each patron pays $10 and gets to enjoy a warm lunch with fellow community members.

Because this event isn’t associated with a particular group, Malone believes it helps the attendance.

“We are not part of a group, club, church, organization,” Malone said. “So consequently, I think everybody feels welcome to attend and everybody feels welcome to help out.”

27 years ago, John Hartom, an art teacher from Michigan, saw an opportunity to engage his students in a fun and creative service learning project. He prompted his students to make bowls and put together a simple lunch of bread and soup. With that, Empty Bowls was born.  

“John told me that they owned it for about 3 hours, and now thousands of people own it,” Malone said. “They couldn’t be happier.”

In 2002, Empty Bowls sprung into the Oxford Community. Laatsch and Camilla Flinterman, started this effort, and Malone joined a year later.

The team worked side by side for several years until Flinterman passed away. Wengler joined the team soon after and the three have been running the event together ever since.

“We made $2,000 in our first year and thought that this could be a big deal,” Laatsch said.

This year, they raised around $9,000 Malone said.

Cooks from all over the Oxford community donate soup to the effort. Around 240 volunteers eagerly greeted people and served soup, bread and desserts to hungry patrons.

Additionally, several corporate sponsors funded the communal effort such as La Rosa’s, the Miami University Credit Union, Skyline, the Knolls of Oxford, the Oxford Rotary Club and Oxford Coffee Company.

“It’s a collective, collaborative engagement,” Malone said.

You’re Fired! puts forth an avenue where different groups in the Oxford community can paint and create hand-crafted bowls. These are donated by the ACE Program (American Culture and English), Wilks Leadership Institute, Talawanda Middle School Honors Society and Church of Latter Day Saints youth group.

Laatsch believes this diverse participation unifies the community.

“We have a bowl donated from You’re Fired! and on it is a child’s name and three years written underneath,” Laatsch said. “And one of the bowls from the Bowl-A-Thon is from a former art professor in his nineties. So we have bowl-makers from three years to 93.”

Handmade bowls were provided by a Bowl-A-Thon, an event where potters, Miami students and university faculty and staff gathered for a total of 99 hours to create 308 bowls.

“I have no artistic talent whatsoever, but thank goodness so many people do,” Malone said.

Malone said she runs the event by four main goals.

“The first is to raise money for the Oxford Community Choice Pantry, to provide food for those that are hungry,” Malone said. “We also want to raise awareness for these issues both locally and globally. We want to build community and engage the arts in a service learning project.”

In Talawanda schools alone, about one-third of students are food-insecure. According to an article in DataUSA, 47 percent of the population in Oxford live below the poverty line, a number much higher than the national average of 14.7 percent.

“Think about going to school and eating breakfast and lunch at that school, and the next time you eat is when you go to school the next day,” Malone said. “That’s the reality we are facing here.”

Malone believes the university town and the student population conceal the harsh reality of food-insecurity in the Oxford community, making it even more important to tackle.

“This event raises awareness for the community.” Malone said. “This problem is not something you see because it’s a university town, but it’s here.”

Empty Bowls directly benefits the Oxford Community Choice Pantry to attack this issue. Laatsch has seen Oxford’s problem as a shopping assistant in the pantry, driving her passion for the local matter.

Oxford Community Choice Pantry resembles a mom-and-pop grocery store. The donated assortments fit in rows based on food groups and family size, so families can choose according to needs. The pantry works to reduce hunger and give nutrition education to households in the Talawanda School District.

“I know what the money does,” Laatsch said. “The hunger and homeless awareness come close to my heart.”