FOOD CHARITY becomes year-round fundraiser

Jeff Lytle

Like so many other non-profits that citizens depend on, food provider Empty Bowls hit a wall when the pandemic hit. People working shoulder-to-shoulder is the hallmark of the crusade, launched locally in 2007 and now extending around the world — but COVID stopped that

Empty Bowls was forced to pivot — and did so in a way that leaves the all-volunteer effort stronger than ever as a year-round ceramics production and sales powerhouse.

Borrowing the template of a 1990 charity innovation in Michigan, Naples’ Empty Bowls’ mission was simple: Hold a public event once a year to raise money to feed the hungry. Tickets would entitle patrons to pick and keep bowls handcrafted by volunteers; local restaurants and clubs would donate vats of soup for patrons to sample and savor.

Three hundred bowls were turned out at a single painting party hosted by a Cell Tower Builders Convention on Marco Island.

The self-titled event over the years, always at Naples’ Cambier Park, draws crowds into the thousands and makes additional money from silent auctions for extra-special bowls, trays and cups.

At first, all of the proceeds were handed to a single food charity. Later, grants were extended to a dozen local non-profits dealing with food insecurity. Recipients pledge to use all of the money for food, and none for staff.

The grants broke the six digit milestone, with $125,000, in 2019.

And then … COVID-19. In March 2020 Empty Bowls just stopped. Health-conscious volunteers backed away from leading group “painting parties” to stockpile bowls for 2021, and painters holed up at home.

Empty Bowls rose to the challenge with bagged to-go kits, like restaurants offer to-go food, with generic ceramic bowls and an assortment of paints and brushes. The whole kit was to be returned to Empty Bowls headquarters in a North Naples industrial park. The tools would be reused and the bowls fired in a kiln serendipitously donated by the Collier Community Foundation a few years earlier.

Picasso-style face painted bowl by Sandee Kozlow Mahler.

The emergency effort produced enough bowls to sell online and at Empty Bowls open houses, raising even more money — supplemented by sponsors and donors — than the year before, reports President Betsy Dawson.

The cancellation of the traditional Empty Bowls fest in January 2021, which Dawson said was heartbreaking, took a budget bite, but the overall impact was eased by a surprise ray of light.

The Mercato commercial complex in North Naples came forward to offer Empty Bowls space to sell handmade ceramics in a pandemic-emptied storefront now named Hand & Harvest Artisan Market.

Not only does the “bowltique” maintain cash flow, Dawson says, it publicizes Empty Bowls and makes new friends.

The Mercato space allows Empty Bowls to hold painting parties, which also have resumed at North Naples headquarters. Plus, Empty Bowls has been invited to host a Hand & Harvest bar serving waters and light wine drinks, and wrap presents at the holidays.

Empty Bowls volunteers are now back on the road to country clubs, the Naples Senior Center and even hotels for festive bowl-making workshops, with one on Marco Island producing 300 bowls and a $10,000 donation. Friends of Empty Bowls bolsters the whole effort.

Inspiration comes from those who dependent Empty Bowls, as noted by Linda Oberhaus of the Shelter for Abused Women & Children of Collier County. “Funding from Empty Bowls provides our emergency shelter participants with perishable and fresh foods such as milk, eggs, meat and fruit,” Oberhaus reports. “Not only do they address food deserts in our community, Empty Bowls also fills hearts with hope.”

Showpieces for sale at Empty Bowls –
shared Mercato storefront

A founder of Empty Bowls Naples, Donna Torrance is an art teacher, and Michigan program pioneer in 1990. “Our vision was just focused on helping the food banks and bringing significance to the arts in schools,” she recalls. “Each year I look at the Cambier crowd with awe and amazement at the spirit of community. It’s a circle of giving. Share your gifts and you get joy in return.” Still, the significance to the community is greater, Torrance observes: “The bond of friendships and healing during the pandemic, and the networking of groups together has united a passion that is powerful beyond myexpectations.”

Steve Popper of Meals of Hope, a beneficiary which shares warehouse space with Empty Bowls, is on the front line. “Local food banks just don’t have enough food to give away, and the need for assistance just continues to grow,” he says. “People in SWFL are fortunate to have Empty Bowls working every day to help make sure no one goes to bed hungry!”

THE 2023 EMPTY BOWLS EVENT is set for January 21, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., at Cambier Park.  For information about tickets, Empty Bowls open houses and more, go to, email or call 591-8848.

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