Students lend their creativity to Empty Bowls fundraiser


Ohana Sarvotham

Students in HUM/SST-120 Introduction to Material Culture Studies hold up their donations to Empty Bowls.

Ella Labarre, Staff Writer

In the early 1990s, an art teacher at a Michigan high school started a fundraiser making and selling ceramic bowls with his students to raise money for local food banks. Over time, this effort eventually morphed into the international project known as Empty Bowls, which seeks to address food insecurity at a grassroots level worldwide. 

This year, the Grinnell community will be participating for the fifth consecutive year in an Empty Bowls fundraiser for the Mid-Iowa Community Action organization (MICA). 

Community members and students, including members of the Stew Makerspace ceramic studio and the Grinnell Area Arts Council, created and sold bowls with all of the profits going towards the MICA food pantry. This year, 29 artists have assisted in creating the bowls, including a number of college students. 

According to Empty Bowls organizers Jane Mertens and Cecilia Knight, Grinnell College’s involvement in the program has increased every year. 

“This is the first year that we’ve had as many students as we have, and we’re very excited to work with them,” said Mertens. Mertens especially commended the contributions from students Mary Jarmusz `23 and Sarah Schillinger `23. 

In addition, Kelly Maynard, professor of history and chair of the European studies department, is teaching a course this semester titled Material Culture Studies. The 12 students in the class also worked together to contribute 12 bowls for the fundraiser. 

Maynard described the multi-step process of creating a bowl. “I take clay, cut them all into pieces, and I weigh them. I then decide on a shape and put them on a tray to dry. Once they’re dry enough, I flip them over and trim the bottoms,” she said.

Bowls decorated by students in Introduction to Material Culture Studies. (Ohana Sarvotham)

“Then they get fired, which is about a 14-hour process.” 

The students are currently glazing the bowls, which will be followed by another 16-hour firing, explained Maynard.

The community contributions towards MICA through Empty Bowls has consistently grown over the years. 

Knight said, “We’ve raised between two and four thousand each year with the bowls we’ve made. We’ve done very well.” 

“We think it’s important to be supporting them because they provide food locally for a bunch of nearby counties, but then they also have a really specific focus on making sure to address food insecurity for children and families,” said Mertens. 

“According to various websites, about 10% of children in Iowa have experienced food insecurity while they were growing up, and we want to make sure that there are options and that there are safety nets out there,” Mertens said.

This year, bowls will be sold at four different locations throughout late November and during the month of December. 

The primary vending location is the Grinnell Area Arts Council, which is located right across the street from the Stew Makerspace. Bowls will be sold during the Jingle Bell Holiday event, hosted by the Grinnell Area Chamber of Commerce, on Friday, Nov. 18 between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Saturday, Nov. 19 between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. 

They will continue to sell bowls from Nov. 30 through Dec. 17 on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. 

Bowls will also be sold at the Winter Farmer’s Market on Nov. 18 and 19 from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Hotel Grinnell. The Iowa Kitchen — formerly the restaurant Relish — and the St. Mary Catholic Church will also be selling bowls on Nov. 18. 

Each bowl will be sold for $20 with all proceeds going towards MICA. The Iowa Kitchen will also provide food options on Nov. 18, such as soup and bread, for $5.