Empty bowls

Methodist fundraiser helps feed hungry Miss. families

By LaReeca Rucker

The Mississippi Food Network served 60,000 people a month last year - a figure that has now risen to 100,000 - indicating hunger is a growing problem in Mississippi.

Impacted by the economy, many Mississippi families for the first time have been forced to turn to food pantries and soup kitchens. Statewide generosity keeps their bowls full.

To tap such generosity, the east and west districts of the United Methodist Church are holding an Empty Bowls event, the first in the metro area.

Set for Sunday at Jackson's Christ United Methodist Church, Empty Bowls will benefit the Society of St. Andrew - a national nonprofit that works to salvage 96 billion pounds of food annually in the U.S. for nearly 40 million Americans.

SOSA gleans excess produce from farmers' fields and orchards after harvest and delivers it to those in need.

"Empty Bowls is kind of a template for events with proceeds that go to any agency that is working with the hungry," said Betsy Cox, event chairwoman.

It works like this: Buy a $15 ticket at the Jackson church at 6000 Old Canton Road. You'll receive soup, bread, dessert and a separate bowl to take home as a reminder that there are empty bowls in the community and all around the world.

Volunteers have creatively painted more than 400 bowls for the event that also will feature a pottery sale and performances by singer/songwriter Tricia Walker.

Attendees also can participate in a small, hands-on mission. SOSA will deliver a truckload of salvaged sweet potatoes and ticketholders are encouraged to help sack them for distribution.

SOSA works with farmers and growers to collect fresh produce. Cox said a Christ United Methodist Church youth group soon will travel to Port Gibson to glean watermelons, and volunteers are gathering sweet potatoes in Eupora this week.

"Because of all the mud, rain and ick, the potatoes can't be harvested mechanically," she said. "The farmers are more than happy for people to get them because they don't want food to go to waste."

Jackie Usey, a Society of St. Andrew staff member, said the nonprofit organization has been around 30 years and in Mississippi the last four.

"We work with farmers and packing houses all over the state to salvage produce that would otherwise be left behind in the field to rot or dumped in a landfill," Usey said. "It might have been rejected for cosmetic reasons. When there are hungry people, why should there be so much waste?"

This year, SOSA - aided by 2,800 volunteers - has salvaged about 1.2 million pounds of produce that has been distributed to feeding agencies throughout the state. SOSA is always seeking volunteers.

"One of our biggest struggles with the Jackson area is finding people who might be willing to make the two-hour drive to smaller towns to actually do gleaning," Usey said. "One of the most frustrating things about churches here is that many say they don't have people who can drive that far in the state, but they just had 30 people come back from a mission trip to Honduras or somewhere.

"We are trying to address the hunger issue in Mississippi. There are people all around us who do not know where their next meal is going to come from, and just because we do not see the emaciated faces of children on television, doesn't mean it doesn't occur here."

The Rev. Chuck Meador, pastor of Christ United Methodist Church, hopes Empty Bowls will become an annual event.

"I believe biblically we have a mandate to care for the poor, and I just look at this as an opportunity to share with others what the Society of St. Andrew does in our state," he said.

An Empty Bowls event will also be held in Columbus Nov. 7.

Al Holen, Mississippi University for Women assistant professor of art and ceramics, said MUW students have crafted 500 pottery bowls and will prepare food donated by local restaurants and grocery stores.

Tickets are $10 and all proceeds will benefit Loaves & Fishes and Global Connections. Loaves & Fishes typically feeds 1,200 to 1,800 people a month in Columbus, and Global Connections helps the hungry in Kenya.

"I was never even aware of this problem in our community," Holen said, "so it's been really good putting this together."

Cox said she hopes people will see Jesus in Empty Bowls, and Julie Gresham, volunteer coordinator, is sure that will happen.

"The face of Jesus is painted in one of the bowls," she said. "It will be kind of neat to see who gets it."